Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas

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The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.

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A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”

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The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.

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MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.

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In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.

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US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)

Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria

A Russian-built BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher (above) fires on ISIS’ positions in Syria. Despite airstrikes from a US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the impact of Western countries on the ISIS fight has been limited. Since September 2015, Russia, Iran, and Syria have been driving the true ISIS fight on the ground. Given their progress, many capitals have sought to get in on the planning for the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in Syria that will allow for its rebuilding. Yet, before broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated militarily.

According to a July 20, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield,” officials from the US and its’ coalition allies in the ISIS fight hammered out details in how to stabilize and govern the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, strongholds of ISIS, in the event that Iraqi and Syrian fighters retake the cities in the coming months. The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was present at the meeting at Joint Base Andrews in the US state of Maryland, noted the many setbacks ISIS had suffered, pointing to its losses in Iraq as well as its loss of Qaiyara and Manbij in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “We need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be a state,” adding that battlefield success in Iraq as well as Syria was “necessary.” After those statements, US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, explained that discussion at the meeting mostly centered on how to stabilize Mosul in Iraq, assuming Iraqi forces can take it back from ISIS. Focusing on Iraq at the Joint Base Andrews meeting was reasonable given the efforts of the US and its allies there. The need to resolve struggles for power among Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish groups is pressing. However, focusing on what might be done in Syria is somewhat surprising given that the US and its allies, despite US-led coalition airstrikes, are not playing the main role in the ISIS fight there. The fight in Syria is being driven by a Russian-led coalition.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its Iranian and Syrian allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has return Syrian territory back to the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. As its main objective, Russia seeks to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leaderhip, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. Western complaints and commentary on Russia’s combat operations in Syria have been nonstop since its’ first sorties in country. The US and United Kingdom have constantly accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” Putin has ignored such insistent voices from the West. He would likely prefer Western governments saved their ministrations for their own operations on the margins in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has engaged in multiple talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. They have discussed the possibility of acting jointly against ISIS. However, on the ground in Syria, Putin has decided to get on with the matter rather than allow it to languish in the halls of inaction. Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. Yet, most recently, Russian Federation commanders and planners have noticed that their allies have faced difficulties in responding to new challenges from ISIS on the ground. Russia must resolve that problem. Much as officials at Joint Base Andrews acknowledged, the end of the war in Syria has begun to take on defined features. Questions exist over what type of peace will take shape in Syria. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said that he fully grasps the challenges that lie ahead regarding the rebuilding of Syria. Putin explained, “We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict.” He also explained that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once such trust is finally built. Putin said that a political process is the only way to reach peace, and he claimed Assad “also agrees to such a process.” However, the war has not been won yet. Before fully broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated via the military operation and peace must be secured. Only then can the focus become creating political, social, and economic conditions that will allow for Syria’s rebuilding. Festinare nocet, nocet et cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit.  (It is bad to hurry and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units, were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger for troops among the allies to feel too strong, lose their heads, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion. ISIS seemed to have found an advantage in this situation. Indeed, ISIS units have displayed a surprising new capability to organize effective counterattacks. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were often unable to protect their forces.

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger that troops among the allies would begin to feel too strong, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion in combat. ISIS seemed to find an advantage in this situation. ISIS began to display the capability to organize effective counterattacks which the allies were unable to beat them back.

In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest. (Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.) The situation stood in great contrast to that in the days immediately after Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces captured Palmyra. The allies appeared to have coalesced as a team and it seemed possible that they would soon rush into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS engagements units of the allies repeatedly developed into routs. ISIS showed no signs of having contingency plans for the loss of cities, towns, and villages in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The allies did observe ISIS laying mines and setting booby traps on avenues of approach to their battle positions. However, counterattacks, which would be expected from a professional fighting force to regain territory or cover its’ withdrawal, were not seen. Since that time though, ISIS has learned how to retreat, and has repeatedly generated difficult situations for the allies.

Many of the top commanders and planners in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In 2014, those Iraqis were behind the impressive capability of ISIS to move its units with a professional acumen. Their skills were seemingly brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their battle positions all around Syria to push the allies back. There were even clashes with ISIS units around the main Jazal Field near Palmyra. Intense Russian Federation airstrikes were required to push ISIS back. Unexpected difficulties, friction, should be expected in any military operation. Yet, the problems that beset the allies to a large extent resulted from bad decisions and inadequate military moves. Syrian Arab Army commanders have been unable to avail themselves of Russian Federation air support and artillery. Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, specifically, continued to take a one-dimensional approach to ground maneuver in Syria much as it has in Iraq. Both forces had the ability to request support from Russian surveillance technologies, air power, and artillery, but those resources were not utilized to pound attacking ISIS units.

ISIS fighters (above) organize for an attack. As Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces began to take territory from ISIS, it seemed at first that the terrorist group had no contingency plans for losing territory in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, ISIS appears to have learned how to retreat. Many commanders and planners behind the movement of its’ forces across Iraq and Syria in 2014 were former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. Their acumen was brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their defenses around Syria and pushed the allies back.

Shoigu Investigates

Experto credite. (Trust in one who has experience.) Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to meet Assad and surely to examine the problem of increased ISIS infiltration and counterattacks. The added significance of Shoigu’s arrival was the fact that he is known as Putin’s “Do It” man. His ability to achieve success in almost any undertaking is the basis for what greatcharlie.com calls the “Shoigu factor.”  Once Shoigu allayed Assad’s concerns over ISIS’ new moves and Russia’s military cooperation with Syria, Shoigu likely discussed the problem in granular detail with the commander of the Russian Federation’s Military Expeditionary Group in Syria, Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, and his air and ground commanders. Shoigu was concerned. He was well-aware that the allies would not be able to limp into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor while ISIS clawed their units to pieces with counterattacks.

Volo, non valeo. (I am willing but unable.) At first look,  Shoigu likely recognized how difficult it was for the three main allies perform with assorted forces under their control, each possessing varied degrees of size, strength, military capabilities, experience, and leadership. Regarding leadership, Shoigu likely discovered how much the acumen of militatry commanders among Russia’s allies differed. Those rdisparities and others should have been underscored and factored into planning, and when possible, compensated for. Instead, perhaps to promote goodwill and unity among the allies, they seemed to have been played down.   Indeed, there was probably plenty of head nodding in agreement in meetings between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials when there was discussion on topics as how to win the war, the need to maximize advantages resulting from the inoperability of Russian-built weapons systems all of the allies used, the integration of ground and air capabilities, and the coordination of action against ISIS.

When Russian Federation military advisers and instructors began trainnig Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they discovered that regular army units needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned existed throughout the Syrian forces. Advisers and instructors did their best. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, managed to resurface as ISIS began to put pressure on the allies via counterattacks.

Shoigu, himself, was likely part of a number of meetings of that type. As recently as June 9, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Dehghan welcomed Shoigu, and Syrian Arab Republic Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces Colonel General Fahd Jassem al-Freij for a meeting in Tehran. Shoigu stated prior to the meeting that topics discussed would include “priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation between the defense ministries of the three countries in the fight with the Islamic State” and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yet, when ISIS applied pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and by launching counterattacks, it was revealed that what was being proffered in theory at senior military meetings was not being translated into practice. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units could not act fully in a unified, coordinated way with Russian Federation forces in response to unexpected and creative maneuvers by ISIS. Effectively working alongside very sophisticated Russian Federation forces required an agility and flexibility in thinking that Syrian Arab Army commanders and paramilitary unit commanders did not possess. Unable to respond otherwise, they held fast to their own ideas for the command and control of their forces and their own plans and timetables for moving their forces against ISIS.

Interestingly when Russian Federation military advisers and instructors set out to train Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they immediately discovered that regular army units, despite having a good amount of discipline and combat experience, needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned officers existed throughout the Syrian Arab Army due to battle casualties and a large number of defections to both the Syrian Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Platoons that supposedly held 20 to 30 troops held around 5 to 10 troops, the commander included. Even before the war, signalmen, gunners, engineers, and other military specialist for the most part were only assigned on paper. Russian Federation military advisers and instructors also discovered that there was the need to instruct Syrian Arab Army commanders on better coordinating actions at the brigade and division levels and among higher military authorities. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. No single commander’s concept or operational plan guided them. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Troops of the pro-Assad paramilitary group, the Desert Falcons (above), are being addressed by their commanders. Military advisers and instructors not only trained Syria forces, but also distributed new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from their inventories. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Regarding paramilitary units (shahibas) loyal to the Assad regime, it was observed that all of them needed to be retrained. That was a difficult task. Despite the fact that many troops in the paramilitary units had seen several years of war, few were aware of how to properly shoot and move on the battlefield. Few had any worthwhile physical training. Volunteer commanders were typically appointed by paramilitary unit members despite the fact that they had no training or experience in leading troops in battle, properly making appropriate decisions in complex military situations, as well as making decisions in everyday situations on the frontline. The discipline of paramilitary troops was a problem that reared its head when the paramilitary units manned checkpoints. A further problem was the unwillingness of paramilitary units to defend areas other than their hometowns. Paramilitary unit volunteers had to be provided basic training then instruction on fighting as part of part of a squad, platoon, company, and then the battalion. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad paramilitary units into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army, brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  Only Republican Guard and Special Forces units and a few mechanized brigades possessed satisfactory levels of readiness. Republican Guard units were well-equipped and staffed with professional soldiers and stood practically self-sufficient with organic artillery, airborne, and special purpose forces. Still, its units were only 70 percent manned at best.

Russian Federation military advisers and instructors, as well as those of the IRGC, and IRGC-Quds Force, were unlikely delinquent in their duty. They likely did their best to prepare Syrian Arab Army units for the fight to eject ISIS from their country given the troops and time available. Their solicitude extended to the distribution of new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from Russian inventories among the newly trained Syrian Arab Army units. Those units were also provided with new Russian vehicles to enhance their mobility. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, resurfaced despite those efforts

Russian Federation Air Force Tu-22M3 bombers (above) strike ISIS targets in Syria. Russian Federation air power can hit ISIS hard, destroy its units, and delay and disrupt their movement. Iranian and Syrian forces must be able to fully avail themselves of that Russian military resource if the allies hope to defeat ISIS. When air power is synchronized with, compliments, and reinforces friendly ground movement, it can help drive friendly units forward.

Effects of the failure of Russia’s allies to avail themselves of Russian military resources included a decrease in the tempo of the allies’ offensive action and near loss of the initiative. It resulted in a need for more sorties during air support missions and increased firefights with ISIS, creating the potential for greater friendly casualties. Robust Russian Federation air power should have been used liberally all around Syria to delay and disrupt movement by ISIS units and when possible destroy them. Russian Federation air power should have been synchronized with, complimented, and reinforced movement by friendly ground forces.

Russian Federation commanders and planners are aware that in the fights for Aleppo, Idlib, and other urban centers, the ground forces of allies could do more than simply chisel away at enemy lines. Numerical advantages are rare on the frontlines in Syria, yet an attacker can economize in less active areas in order to develop local superiority at the point of his main effort. The attacker, after concentrating quickly, can strike hard at an unexpected place and time to throw the defender off balance. Once the attack is underway, the attackers’ chance of success can be improved if he moves fast, aggressively pressing every advantage, and if he capitalizes on opportunities to destroy the enemy’s forces and the overall coherence of his defense.

Russian Federation commanders and planners also know air power can greatly impact enemy moves in urban centers. If forced to move quickly in the face of Russian air power, an enemy commander would be allowed less time to ensure his unit’s concealment. It could cause him to move when conditions would not impede aircrews’ search of his unit. Rapid movement could also decrease the effectiveness of his air defense systems, allowing aircrews greater freedom to search for his unit, increasing the chance for it to be spotted. So far in Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. When aircews cannot identify targets, airstrikes are made in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuring and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to address the problems of increased ISIS infiltration and damaging counterattacks. In meetings with Russian Federation military commanders and planners, Shoigu surely explained that it was not feasible to wait for their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to communicate with them when they are on the attack or facing counterattacks. He undoubtedly directed them to better coordinate with their allies.

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

In his meetings with Russian Federation military commanders, Shoigu surely emphasized that it was not enough to simply stay in communication with Iranian and Syrian Arab Army commanders while they are on the attack or when they are facing counterattacks. Shoigu likely stressed that they had to maintain situational awareness, and authentically coordinate their actions with their allies and help them exploit opportunities created. There was also a shake up in the Russian Federation’s military command structure in Syria. Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev replaced Dvornikov. Zhuravlev is known best for helping to plan the Palmyra offensive.

Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 stated Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.” It seems Russian Federation air power and spetsnaz will also be relied on to underpin the allies’ ultimate victory in Syria. Responding to the problem with resources available, Shoigu ordered increased air strikes and the increased deployment of Russian spetsnaz advisers among Syrian Arab Army units. The goal would be to improve the direction of artillery fires against ISIS counterattacks along the Syrian Arab Army’s axis of advance toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and in support of battle positions of allies all around Syria. Russia had already supplied Russian-built heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to its allies, to include: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Spetsnaz units could assist Syrian Arab Army units in coordinating ground assaults with air support and artillery fire, in building hasty defenses, and in improving unit security. By degrading enemy forces with fire in support of assaults, the goal is not to create attrition battles but to enable the successful, rapid maneuver of friendly forces.

Soon after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made improvements in Syria, desired results seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division (above) supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating points along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. As they push forward, commanders of these Syrian units will be better able to coordinate with their Russian Federation counterparts and to avail themselves of Russian military resources.

Soon after Shoigu’s visit to Syria, improvements seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating towns and villages along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. In Deir Ezzor’s Industrial District, the Syria Arab Army’s Special Task Force “Al Qassem Group” undertook the task of clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from the district’s streets. They joined the Republican Guard’s 104th Airborne Brigade and 137th Artillery Brigade of the 17th Reserve Division in the fight for Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Arab Army High Command also ordered a change in command of the 17th Reserve Division from Syrian Arab Army Major General Mohammed Khaddour to Syrian Arab Army Major General Hassan Mohammed.

Regarding fights in urban centers, it was reported from southern Aleppo that a mix of Iranian-led units, primarily Iraqi Shi’a militias such as Harakat An Nujba, Katayb Hezbollah, and Assaib Ahl Al Haqq — two of which are operating Russian-made T-90 main battle tanks acquired by the IRGC in early 2016 —launched repeated counterattacks against the Jaysh Al-Fateh coalition, and Free Syrian Army units. Allies loyal to the Assad regime to include private military companies such as Liwa Suqour As Sahra and Liwa Dir As Sahel, Shi’a militias such as Liwa Nussr Az Zawba’a and Quwwat Al Galilee as well as a Lebanese Hezbollah unit, have launched attacks in southern Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation Air Force is engaged in a campaign in western Aleppo and targeting the towns of Hayyan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma’arat Al Artiq positioned along avenues of approach into northern and eastern parts of Aleppo city. Most recently, Russian Federation Air Force airstrikes have targeted Castello Road, the last route out of the Syrian opposition-held eastern part of the city. As for the Syrian Arab Air Force, it continues to hit targets in Idlib city, Ma’arat An Nauman and eastern Aleppo.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led to questions about the progress of the Russian Federation Military Expeditionary Group in Syria. After his visit with Russian Federation commanders and planners, the decision was made to replace Russian Federation Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov with Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev. Zhuravlev will oversee the allies’ capture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and the final destrustion of ISIS in Syria.

Retaining the Initiative to the End

In the April 6, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy Failure on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?,” it was stated that ISIS could potentially establish a redoubt east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among attacking forces as possible with a suicide defense. However, well-planned offensive action by Russia and its allies might serve to obviate that possibility. The military principle of offense prescribes that maintaining the initiative is the most effective and decisive way to dominate the battlefield. On the offensive, there must be an emphasis on the commander’s skilled combination of the elements of maneuver, firepower, protection, and intelligent leadership in a sound operational plan. The initiative must be retained. Moving forward, firepower, the allies’ greatest strength, must be used to its’ maximum advantage. Firepower can serve maneuver by creating openings in enemy defenses, but also destroy an enemy’s vital cohesion, his ability to fight, and effectively act. Indeed, one of the most important targets is the enemy’s mind. The allies should engage in actions that will sway moves by ISIS to enhance the opportunities to destroy it.

The drive against Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in a way resembles the circumstances in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, after defeating the Syrians, pushed up to the Golan Heights at its northern border, and then executed an economy of force operation. Israel kept a portion of its forces on its border with Jordan, even though hostilities did not break-out between the two countries. Israeli forces in the Golan Heights conducted artillery attacks on Damascus with long range guns to give the impression that they were going to seize that city while sizeable Israeli forces were concentrated south against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula to their southwest. After concentrating against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, Israeli forces threw their strength at Egyptian weakness, the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The Israelis subsequently encircled the Third Army eliminating it as a threat to Israeli territory,

Before the final push against them begins, Russian military spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. They could also be positioned to block ISIS infiltration into Syria from Iraq and territory now controlled by the Assad regime. Spetsnaz units could conduct raids, set up ambushes, and establish kill zones. They could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Much as with the Egyptian Second and Third Armies in the Sinai in 1973, ISIS units in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, albeit in a limited way, could move units into territory controlled by the Assad regime. They could also become hubs for the reestablishment of lines of communication between ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By hunkering down in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the face of an onslaught from Russia and its allies, ISIS can claim that it held on to the capital of its Islamic Caliphate. Raqqa, in particular, would likely become a symbol of resistance and power for ISIS to a greater extent than it is now and its narrative on the city’s defense would become an invaluable recruiting tool for the organization. For Assad to claim that he has retaken control of Syria, he must control urban centers and the surrounding areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Palmyra, Darra and certainly Damascus. For Putin to claim that it stabilizes the legitimate authority of Assad. Putin must destroy ISIS in Syria or, at a minimum, leave it scattered and tattered, reduced to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power and unable to resurrect itself. If Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cannot be taken rapidly, Russia and its allies must encircle the cities. After assembling overwhelming force to direct against ISIS units, both cities could be attacked. Before that fight would get underway, spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. Spetnaz could also be positioned on known and suspected ISIS infiltration lanes into Syria from Iraq and lanes into territory now controlled by the Assad regime. They could block those lanes coconducting raids, setting up ambushes, and establishing kill zones for air strikes and artillery fire. Spetsnaz could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

The loss rate of ISIS could be increased by having aerial platforms capable of stand-off attacks continuously engage ISIS defenses, and by stationing fighter jets and bombers in orbit 24-hours a day above ISIS locations identified by spetsnaz to engage in continuous strikes. They could also hit targets of opportunity identified by aircrews whenever they might be authorized to fly at lower altitudes.

The Way Forward

According to the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, as they walked on stage during the first performance of Eumenides, the chorus of furies was so hideous and frightening in appearance that “they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.” ISIS, during its grand entry on the world stage, in Syria and Iraq, put on full display its very bloody, murderous side. ISIS mercilessly murdered hundreds of military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. ISIS left no doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, Putin was never impressed with the group. In a speech on his deployment of Russian Federation forces to Syria, Putin remarked on ISIS’ behavior in a disdainful tone, saying, “We know how they do such things; how they kill people; how they destroy cultural monuments. . . .” In that same speech, Putin explained that in the ISIS fight, Russia would provide Assad and other allies “the necessary military and technical support.” Russia has done that and ISIS may soon be defeated in Syria.

Omne initium difficile est. (Every beginning is difficult.) Once Russia and its allies squeeze the life out of ISIS in Syria, they must not allow ISIS to resurrect itself. A capable military presence must be set up in Syria to keep ISIS out or at least under control. The success of the joint military efforts of Russia and its allies may provide the foundation for a peace enforcement mission in Syria and an eventual reconstruction effort. With reconstruction costs in mind, the possibility exists that Russia and its allies would cooperate with the US over what remains of the ISIS fight in Syria and the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. Among other possibilities, Iranian and Iranian-led forces, in support of the Assad regime and their Syrian Arab Army allies, could coordinate actions with units of their comrades in Iraq. Both forces fall under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani. Locking down the border will collaterally support the ISIS fight in Iraq. It was hypothesized in 2015 by the Middle East Institute that Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) might be co-opted to help establish a security zone incorporating their own territory and some more along the border with Iraq to help keep ISIS out of the area and help maintain a sustainable peace. How Putin will proceed is uncertain, but right now, Russia is playing a central in Syria and he is free to decide as he pleases.

How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?

During the fight for Palmyra, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took a photo (above) from the cellphone of a Russian spetsnaz officer reportedly killed in combat and posted it on the internet, apparently attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. Instead, by posting the photo, they gave the whole world a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been gallantly fighting the scourge of ISIS. At Palmyra, Russia was seen fulfilling its promise to defeat ISIS and support Assad.

According to a March 29, 2016 Washington Post article entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight In Syria,” Russian special forces (spetsnaz) operating on the front have remained mostly out of the public eye, but with the seizure of Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province that is no longer the case. The article asserts Russian spetsnaz have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays into the rhetoric that Russia intervened to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Chris Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted in the article as saying involvement of spetsnaz in Palmyra “looks great.” He further stated, “. . . their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.” The Washington Post reports it is unclear when Russian spetsnaz began operations in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. Michael Kofman, an analyst focused on Russian military operations at the Washington think tank, the Center Naval Analyses (CNA), told the Washington Post that Russia operates several spetsnaz units in Syria, to include Zaslon, KSO, and detachments of reconnaissance teams. Zaslon is a special purpose group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR made up from former spetsnaz troops. For some time, Zaslon has been in Syria providing support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel and standing ready to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to lose if Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse. KSO or Special Operations Forces Command is the Russian Federation’s equivalent to the US Joint Special Operations Command.

As it was explained in November 30, 2015 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria; An Agreement IS Needed on Assad,” use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz, would likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units. Kofman says, “Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians.” He said they also provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations. Spetsnaz appear to be participating in combat alongside Syrian troops at the tactical level. Kofman told the Washington Post that spetsnaz and advisers on the front line have helped Syrian troops and Assad’s allies consolidate gains and take ground, despite the hype surrounding the detachment of Russian aircraft in the country. He called them the glue that is helping the Syrians fight as a much more capable army.

Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum. (While we have the time, let us do good.) The massive presence of ISIS in Syria created a predicament for both the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition. ISIS was eventually recognized internationally as a bloody, murderous terrorist organization, murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. Although the Assad regime supported by Russia and the Syrian Opposition was supported by US, and work was being done on the margins, neither superpower appeared willing or able to do what is necessary to support their Syrian beneficiaries. That all changed in September 2015, when Russia, following Iran, intervened militarily support to Assad. Many worldwide discovered for the first-time that Russia, just as the US, has very capable airpower assets and special forces.   US President Barack Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Yet, absent a robust US effort with the Syrian Opposition to counter Putin’s move, Russia and its allies found themselves with room for some real open field running in Syria. Indeed, Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. The success of spetsnaz units and other Russian forces in Syria has pressed the US to try to mitigate the damage of the prospective “loss” of Syria and failed policy of containing Assad until he could be removed at the negotiation table. The success of spetsnaz provides an interesting measure to gauge the collapse of that policy on the ground.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of Russian Federation Air Force jets from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. A percentage of Russian Federation forces were withdrawn. However, Putin had no intentions of abandoning Assad. What occurred at Palmyra should have served to dispel such rumors. The “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian Federation forces supplied in Syria, shipped more equipment and supplies to the Russian naval base at Tartus in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior.

Russia Goes In

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria and details of combat operations developed and executed under his command remain classified. In an official interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta in March 23, 2016, Dvornikov explained the situation facing his Russian Military Group in Syria upon arrival in-country as follows: “The terrorists who numbered more than 60,000 occupied around 70 percent of territory of Syria. Gangs had seized control of the major cities of Idlib. Palmyra, and Raqqa. The terrorists controlled a large part of the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, conducted large scale offensives in the province of Latakia and were preparing to surround and capture Aleppo. And the key Damascus-Aleppo highway, joining the south and north of the country, was under constant threat of blockade by the militants. On top of that, the government troops were exhausted after 4 years of hostilities and were holding off the terrorist offensives with great difficulty. The population was leaving the country en masse.” In addition to gloomy Russian assessments, alarms were sounded by Russia’s ally Iran. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 26, 2015, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the Assad regime’s crumbling situation in Syria. He explained that Syrian Opposition forces were advancing toward the coast, threatening the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and endangering Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This reportedly alarmed the Russians who already understood matters were in steep decline militarily for the Assad regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained why there was still time to reverse the situation. Ratio et consilium propriae ducis arte. (Reason and deliberation are the proper skills of a general.)

After Russian Federation forces began operations in Syria, there was a change compared with things antecedent on the ground. In his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview, Dvornikov outlined advances made by Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces: “Taking control of key regions of the northeast of the province of Aleppo seriously affected the militants’ supply lines and the transfer of reinforcements from Turkey through the corridor between Jarabulus and Azaz. This created the conditions for the crushing defeat of ISIS to the north of Aleppo. What do we have now? We have the liberation of the Kuweires airbase as well as a number of settlements that had been under terrorist control for more than three years. The militants have been completely driven out of the province of Latakia. Coastal areas, in which a significant part of the population of Syria is concentrated, have been cleansed of the terrorists.” With regard to the Hama, Homs, and Damascus provinces, Dvornikov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “These provinces are located in the central part of the country. And, for the most part they have been cleared of illegal armed groups. Now a most active process of reconciliation is going on there. From a military point of view, it is very important that the major roads in Syria are under the control of government forces. Generally speaking, during the military operation, Syrian troops—with air support—liberated 400 populated areas. The potential of terrorist groups was halved, they lost the initiative and the territory controlled by them was reduced by 10,000 square kilometers.” Per ardua, ad astra. (Through adversity to the stars.)

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov (above) in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly, few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria. Dvornikov revealed in an interview that Palmyra’s capture would open up the road to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, create conditions for reaching and controlling the border with Iraq, and re-establish control over three large oil and gas fields which had previously served as a source of income for ISIS.

The Palmyra Battle

The total number of troops involved in the fight for Palmyra from the Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian coalition of forces was over 5000. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces have been deployed economically, to avoid being bogged down in support of its allies, but also to ensure ISIS could be destroyed and prevented from relocating and resurrecting itself. Russia deployed significant numbers of ground forces to work in coordination with air assets. Russian units operating TOS-1 and BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher systems as well as Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships were utilized in support of operations to retake Palmyra.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of planes from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. It was not a hoax. Russian Federation forces were withdrawn however, as analysts informed AFP, the withdrawal was very limited, with estimates ranging between 10 and 25 percent of its forces in Syria. However, Russian activity seemed to have increased. Reuters reports the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, has shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Just before the assault on Palmyra, Russia publicly admitted, for the first time since it launched operations in Syria in September 2015 that spetsnaz were on the ground as part of the offensive.

Spetsnaz units have locating and designating ISIS targets for airstrikes in advance of contact with them by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian ground forces. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, serve as over watch for forces Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. Dvornikov explained: “. . . Two thousand terrorists, originally coming from the Russian Federation—were destroyed on Syrian territory. Of these, 17 were field commanders.” By targeting Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Syria, Russian forces contributed immensely to the safety and security of their country and its citizens and the international effort against those Islamic militant groups as well. Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 said Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.”

Offering an example of the type of fighting in which Russian forces have been engaged, a Russian spetsnaz officer, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, was killed while directing airstrikes upon himself when surrounded by ISIS fighters near Palmyra according to the Russian military on March 24, 3016. (He reportedly had been working in Syria for just a week.) ISIS took a photo allegedly from his cellphone and posted it on the internet in an apparent attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. (The causality is really unknown. The thinking behind ISIS decisions is hard to decipher.) Instead, by posting the photo, the world was given a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been fighting gallantly against the scourge of ISIS in Syria. Certainly, most people in the world are united in thinking ISIS must be destroyed. Quem metuit quisque perisse cupit. (Everyone wishes that the man whom he fears would perish.)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi (above) as the IRGC commander in Syria. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria was established in July 2015. Iran has deployed several thousand (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria, mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, and brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah units from Lebanon.

Concerning Syrian forces, many of them, to include nearly 1000 Syrian Marines and National Defense Forces militiamen, were brought up to Palmyra from Latakia, Aleppo, Qunetta Provinces. This movement of troops was enabled by the “cessation of hostilities” that began on February 27, 2016 that stemmed from the Geneva III Peace Talks on Syria. Those forces linked-up with hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and even Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatimiyoun. Iran deployed the IRGC to support coalition forces in the operation. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria came into effect via an agreement in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. After a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015, the decision was made to step up coordination between the two countries on Syria. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Reportedly, Khamenei appointed IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi as the IRGC commander in Syria. He is known as Abu Ahmad in Syria.

Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment included: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers.

The offensive proceeded as a three pronged frontal assault similar to previous regime directed operations against Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province, displaying little to none of the sophisticated operational design that characterized the recent campaign in Aleppo Province. Dvornikov explained in his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview that the capture of Palmyra would “open up the road to (IS strongholds) Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and create conditions for reaching and taking control of the border with Iraq.” Syria’s military on Sunday also confirmed that the battle for Raqqa—the de facto capital of the jihadists—is the plan. Dvornikov also noted that “control was re-established over three large oil and gas fields, which had previously served as a source of income for the terrorists.” As important, a barrier has been created for several critical regime-held oil and natural gas fields that provide electricity to Western Syria. Further, ISIS’ ability to project force into Western Syria from the Euphrates River Valley was reduced.

Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces have not been holding on anywhere. After Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic state bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way.

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

Despite laying mines and setting booby traps for advancing Russian-led forces, it seems learning how to retreat has been a difficult experience for ISIS. One might have expected counterattacks to cover its withdrawal. Assad regime troops have not been holding on anywhere and after Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic State bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way. The day following Palmyra’s capture, a Syrian military source said “The army was concentrated around Al-Qurayatayn.”

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders, of what is essentially a Russian-led coalition, must recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.  ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate their will to resist and the capabilities of their group knowing the world would watching. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Russian air assets, along with air assets of its allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions or be killed or captured once driven out of their positions. In tandem with the hot pursuit of ISIS by Russian and allied forces on the ground, airstrikes could support efforts to divert fighters of destroyed or displaced ISIS units away from their lines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. The attrition rate of ISIS should be increased by having aerial platforms that allow for stand-off attacks with anti-personnel weapons remain in near 24-hour use on targeted defenses and targets of opportunity such as isolated ISIS units in the desert.

The tempo and volume of Russian air strikes targeting ISIS leaders—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified—should be increased exponentially. Command centers and any gathering places of ISIS leaders, must not be allowed to exist. If possible, they should be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate. Locations hit by airstrikes where ISIS might attempt to recover anything equipment or gear must be hit again to halt those recovery efforts. The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed or disrupted by other technical means permanently destroying any surviving leaders’ abilities to control over their units. Known and suspected assembly areas and rally points for ISIS units must be attacked from the air. In units left rudderless, acting without coordination, hopefully unit cohesion will begin to suffer, and they will lose their effectiveness completely. Small unit leaders should be left with the choice to allow their fighters to die in place or make a dash for the Euphrates, where along with other units, they should be consumed through a coordinated plan by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces for annihilating any last ditch defense. Life should be made unlivable for ISIS in Syria.

Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units should be issued portable GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy any ISIS counterattacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate vigorously at night when ISIS fighters might try to conceal movement. As directed by Moscow, individual spetsnaz units, in a special reconnaissance role, could continue to go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, take prisoners. Some spetsnaz must be dedicated to fighting other Islamic militant groups in Syria such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders likely recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense, as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.   ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate the capabilities and will of their terrorist group. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

Six months after US and United Kingdom forces landed in Normandy in June 1944 during World War II, it was thought by senior German military commanders and hypothesized by Allied military planners that the Nazi government would be moved to a mountainous area of southern Germany and Austria. From there, a determined force could hold out for some time, complicating the situation for any occupying force in Germany. Allied planners referred to that area hypothetical defensive zone as the National Redoubt. It was discussed among German military planners as the Alpenfestung. While the idea of the Alpenfestung was investigated, it was never created. Instead, rumors were deliberately spread by a special unit set up by the German Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels to keep a redoubt idea alive. Yet, not being complacent, Allied military commanders ordered bombing raids to reduce locations that would be critical to operating the redoubt. It is difficult to say what ISIS leaders would do if Raqqa and Deir Ezzor fell. While there are no mountain ranges on the line of march of Russia and its allies to set up an Islamic Caliphate redoubt in Syria as imposing as the one conjured up by both sides in Germany, luck might have it that Iraqi military commanders in ISIS might try to set up a “line of death” east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among Russian-led forces as possible with a suicide defense. Real luck would come if reinforcements were rushed in where available in Iraq. (Though, US-led, and Iranian-led, forces have caused ISIS inside Iraq considerable problems, making any effort to move units from there to reinforce a redoubt in Syria dubious.) If Russian-led forces observe a redoubt being formed, it would present them with the opportunity to deal a tremendous blow against ISIS from which it would never recover. With overwhelming firepower, using every means of combat support and reconnaissance and surveillance for targeting available, the entire ISIS force could be annihilated. All ISIS commanders, planners and fighters in the defense would need to be destroyed much as near entire Japanese forces were destroyed following island battles in the Pacific during World War II. Acribus initiis, incurioso fine. (Zealous at the commencement, careless toward the conclusion.)

Russian air assets, along with those of Russia’s allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. Airstrikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced groups away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Targets of opportunity in the desert should be destroyed. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units.

The Way Forward

When Putin went into Syria in September 2015, he did so not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he wanted to defeat ISIS or, at a minimum, reduce its presence in Syria to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize efforts of the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. So far in Syria, Putin has effectively left no doubt with the Russian people, but also the world, that he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that Russia is a global power. The ejection of ISIS from Palmyra was a major achievement on top of all of its success in Syria. Russia was seen fulfilling its promise of defeating ISIS and supporting Assad. News of the event has garnered unenthused recognition from the Washington and European capitals.

Ad mores natura damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable.) Some might speculate that Putin may choose to forestall backing the attacks on Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as the UN Talks in Geneva may reach a result that would keep Assad in power and serve Russia’s interest. However, Putin’s decision making manifests a sense of pessimism regarding human nature. Interactions with the West have been a struggle, Russia is still being sanctioned over Ukraine. Putin most likely expects to encounter some machinations from Western capitals that would cause Russia’s interests to be subordinated by their own. He very likely felt he had encountered something of that nature during UN Talks on Syria in Vienna on November 14, 2015 when Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in the national elections. Kerry seemed to be betting that if Syrians around the world participated in the vote, Assad would never be able to remain in office. In part to counter such moves, Putin has sought to significantly shape the situation on the ground by supporting the combat operations of Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Once all of Russia’s goals on the ground are achieved, Putin would seek to finalize some political arrangement for Syria. What may be shaping up is a race by the US-led and Russian-led anti-ISIS camps to take Raqqa and to establish their will in Syria.

In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; On Foreign Policy They Want to See Real Success

In his State of the Union Address, US President Barack Obama painted a picture of the US with a better standing in the world after seven years of his leadership. In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Yet, triumphalism does not equate to triumph. There is a continuous threat from terrorist groups. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and China remain in fierce competition with the US. They may seek to establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened.

In a January 12, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears in State of the Union Speech,” it was reported US President Barack Obama painted a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership with a better standing in the world. Concerning foreign policy and national security, Obama defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) describing it as a dangerous threat to the US that must be dealt with but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of US ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Obama highlighted his work in forging a nuclear deal with Iran, opening a new era of relations with Cuba, pressing for a global accord reached in Paris to combat climate change and efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. He also explained the US is uniquely positioned to rally other countries to solve global problems.

In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Loyal Obama supporters and fans and other Democrats will be at every venue, a flutter at every word he utters about his presidency. Doyens of the political realm in the US will make glowing public orations, descants and publish paeans in honor of the president, celebrating his administration’s accomplishments. Having twice vanquished all opposition to Obama in national elections, and after completing nearly eight years of work, some measure of triumphalism is expected to be heard from him, his senior officials, and his staff. It would be expected even more of an administration marked particularly by its obsession over the president’s legacy. The final year of his last term is the ideal time to set the record straight and control the narrative. Iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum. (Pleasant is the memory of past troubles.)

Still, triumphalism, highlighting the administration’s perceived achievements on foreign policy, does not equate to triumph. Real success cannot be determined by levels of applause from fans. Doubts have been expressed even among Democrats over many of the administration’s foreign policy efforts. The forces of tyranny and darkness still hold a prominent place on the international stage. Whether signature efforts by the administration have created real change or will be sustainable remains uncertain. The renowned wit and retired late night US television talk show host, David Letterman, once joked, “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: Operation Hillary’s Problem.”   Whether Letterman engaged in a successful dalliance as a visionary regarding former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s election as the next US president remains to be seen. Still, his main point was clear. The Obama administration has not successfully acted against ISIS and was seemingly passing on that problem, and other important ones, to the next US administration. However, sitting on issues in order to hand them over to a new administration is not a wise choice. In addition to the continuous threat of terrorism from ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other groups worldwide, countries such as Russia, Iran, and China while interacting with the US still remain in fierce competition with it strategically, ideologically. They may now hope to exploit perceived advantages and establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened. Approaches exist to prevent that from occurring or at least minimize any negative results. They may not allow the administration to declare triumph, but may allow it to honestly claim it left a satisfactory foreign policy legacy.

Creating a Foreign Policy Legacy

During Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Presidential Election, he was recognized as a man of vision, a seeker, filled with smart words, no less than the breath of life. His speeches were indeed balanced, teeming with inspiration. In photos, videos and in his writings and speeches during that first presidential campaign and during the initial stages of his first term, it was clear that Obama was very passionate, a man seemingly haunted by his vision of an even brighter future for the US. Yet, having is not the same as wanting. As time passed, there were some successes, but there were also failures. Mistakes were also made, particularly in the area of foreign policy. They came to office believing the policy issues have been misunderstood and solutions are only temporarily hidden. In decision making, spirit and vision would be given primacy over vested interests, realism. That was the case of the US response toward countries in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and to the opposition movements in Ukraine. The administration’s foreign policy seemed driven by a self-neglectful virtue that would allegedly melt all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that the US believes gives hope to those it perceives as helpless. The administration wished to become no less than an anathema to tyrants, pointing always to the hallmark of their oppressive regimes which is a lack of respect for the dignity of others. The administration would contest how those regimes would typically act upon citizens: not with constitutional authority, but with raw power. Yet, the Obama administration also in no way wanted to be associated with the policies of the previous administration of US President George W. Bush which was perceived as willing to lash out without delay at its adversaries. Instead of projecting authentic US strength globally, the administration proffered the idea that the US could rely upon multilateral solutions. That would allow it to minimize US intervention on the ground, but require joint action from allies and partners who were undertaking dramatic military cuts and were facing economic difficulties. Those countries were also very aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric, not set piece engagements to win quickly. No Western European country with real military capabilities would commit requisite or robust forces to take on risks globally, especially if its political leaders felt that the issue at hand did not fall within their interests. Countries possessing far less capabilities than the US in regions where there were urgent and important crises brewing, were also hesitant to act unless matters fell directly in their interests. Obama repeatedly presented his notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama spoke, and regular breakdowns in the administration’s foreign policy initiatives that were being implemented. When the administration thought efforts under this multilateral concept coalesced as an outcome of initial success in Libya, things soured resulting in multiple failures from the controversial loss of US diplomatic and military personnel to the development of struggle between competing factions and Islamic militants aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Obama administration did not invent the US Government. The government that the administration took control of has always been viewed as stable, solid, reassuring. It has been the source of so much hope not only of foreign capitals but individuals worldwide. Now, the image has grown of the US in retreat, perhaps wounded by its ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no longer seen by all as a champion of right but as a cold calculator. Its leaders know the price of everything but not the value of relationships the US once held close. Seeing the failed results of its approach, exasperated European leaders have not responded with mockery, sarcasm, or insolence; at least not publicly. Leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom have tried to give courage, to fortify the administration. Viciousness has done much harm in history. Still, the worst crimes, the worst disasters in history have been the work of the timid, the mediocre. For years, many will feel the Obama administration stood passively in the face of evil.

As an authentic military superpower, the US has a clear upper hand over all of its likely opponents. Any assessment otherwise would not be genuine. The administration has been reluctant to use US military power. Adversaries, upon recognizing this, seemingly downplayed concerns over US capabilities to impose its will and simply considered how to impose their own will, regionally and globally. Soon their narrative exposed a defective perspective that the US lacked the ability to deliver a knockout blow. Subtly, opponents worked tirelessly on the US, enjoying the freedom to act in the world, knowing that beyond the diplomatic table, using economic weapons such as sanctions, and revoking membership in collective economic groups, little else would occur. Possible limitations on what could be done would only be set by the Obama administration’s time in office. It is already clear that the dynamic between the US and many countries has changed. It remains to be seen whether US opponents will attempt to administer some type of coup de grace in the administration’s final months, ensuring that it will not have a positive foreign policy legacy. The following are some possibilities, “stripped to the bone”.

Above is a photo of a deep underground military base in Iran. The Obama administration hopes to be known for attempting to create better relations with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. However, results of its efforts may very well prove that the administration was acting on a charming fantasy. It approached those countries unlike previous administrations. In Tehran, the Obama administration has no friend. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit the administration or betray it.

Iran

Certainly, the Obama administration will be known for attempting to create union with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. Its approach to those countries was unlike that of previous administrations. In past cases, the US projected that strength, and US diplomacy was supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. Indeed, the previous US administration emphasized to Iran that the US had the intention and capability to impose its will on them and it had no ability to impose its will on the US.   Leaders in Tehran rejected that approach. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. To facilitate the establishment of talks with the P5+1 (the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany), the Obama administration did not impose its will on Iran using strength, rather it negotiated with Iran under the fiction that all parties to the talks were equals. US strength was negated. Having managed to arrange the environment to maximize their ability to achieve success, Iranian negotiators came to the talks confident in their positions. The Iranians flatly denied they wanted to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting Iran’s program is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, and the Iranian negotiating team were under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements in Iran, to secure an agreement that recognized Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium and held the line on that issue. As Zarif told the ISNA news agency in November 2014, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’, because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”

Close contact with US negotiators for months allowed the Iranians a real chance to look into their thinking of US negotiators. The Iranians discerned they were witnessing the impact of the Obama administration’s “legacy quest.” White House officials and US political pundits spoke and wrote about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. US negotiators were pushing for a deal in order to claim an historic foreign policy success. So strong was the sense that the US might be willing to make risky concessions, that Zarif stated in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” The Iranians became more tenacious than ever in the talks. There was also a discernible change in Obama’s discussion of taking military action against Iran as the talks progressed. Threats vanished. The administration went as far as to say there was nothing effectively could be done militarily to halt Iran’s program. The narrative of the US changed.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed on July 14, 2015. With safeguards, the administration believes the framework agreement will cut down Iran’s breakout time capacity to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be set up to help discourage Iran from violating the agreement. The hope is noncompliance by Iran at declared or potential undeclared sites would be detected through enhanced monitoring by the international community and promptly disrupted. The consequence of noncompliance would likely be limited to economic sanctions which may not be enough to restrain hardliners driven to build a weapon. The results of the administration’s efforts may prove that it was acting on a charming fantasy.

Reportedly, Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the Iran deal. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea to develop a weapon. Alleged evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

There have been reports that Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the JCPOA. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. (During the Cold War, the US encouraged joint work by its allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and South Africa, on the development of nuclear capabiltites.) The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. On September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft and special operations forces attacked and destroyed them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other facilities exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, one may be underground, west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran. The Obama administration has no friend in the regime in Tehran. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit it or betray it. Equo ne credite! (Do not trust the horse! [Referring to the Trojan Horse.])

European governments and large European firms now seek to renew economic ties and develop business with Iran. As those linkages are established, the chance that the US could pull allies away from potential profits due to a “potential threat” a nuclear Iran might pose is lessened. The argument would be made that economic ties would serve to lessen hostilities between Iran and their countries. Threats to use force against Iran would have little meaning at that point as too many statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made. At best, the Obama administration could increase sanctions on North Korea over nuclear weapons tests showing Pyongyang that it would be impractical to support any possible Iranian covert Iranian overseas nuclear program. It could also make it publicly known that the US is still developing greater capabilities to destroy deep underground military bases as those in Iran. If Iran is trying to cross the line or has crossed the line, at least the next administration would be better able to back diplomacy with force.

ISIS on parade in Mosul. When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began in June 2014, the Obama administration’s response included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama refused to give the Iraqis military aid unless they tried to bridge their divisions. Maliki stepped down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government reflecting Iraq’s ethno-religious diversity and gain the trust of disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it.

Iraq

When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was designed as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. ISIS was able to capture large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces during their offensive because Sunni residents threw their support to it after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had previously helped fight ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama insisted that no US military help would be provided unless Iraqis tried to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to make headway with Maliki. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops prepared the Iraqi Army for its fight to retake Ramadi. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for 2016. Iran would hardly tolerate any loss of control or surrender its interests in Iraq due to the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing the representative government that the US sought for Iraq could not be easily created, Iran’s leaders likely assumed the US would not succeed. Tehran went ahead and expressed reserved support for Abadi. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. Causality for his change in perspective was likely a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, and Iran’s battlefield efforts. Abadi may have also questioned the Obama administration’s will to engage in long-term fight with ISIS. His rebellious attitude was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Iran has heavily committed itself to Iraq.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran has placed itself in a better position to shape Iraq politically and economically. How Iran would ameliorate Iraq’s sectarian struggle is uncertain.

To support Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. While the US was hesitant to help Iraqi Security Forces as ISIS marched toward Baghdad, Abadi observed that Iran was swift to provide assistance. Having established greater control over the Shi’a community and increased its influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran is now in a better position to shape Iraq politically, economically, and perhaps socially, with effort.

The road Iran is creating for Abadi may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representative government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern it, the Obama administration should consider how it can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. That does not mean pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish things. Baghdad should have positive ties with its neighbor, Iran. Yet, the US can improve its relationship with Iraq. Surely, it could further enable Iraq’s fight against ISIS, and help stem the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Even more, it could further advance Iraq’s position on the world stage by helping it generate significant business and economic ties worldwide, beyond the oil and gas industry, even while Baghdad copes with ISIS and sectarian issues. Clarior e tenebris! ([I shine] out of the darkness more brightly!)

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Now with Russia in the mix, they are well out of their depth. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy against Assad’s regime.

Syria

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Rebel fighters found themselves in trouble early on and now with Russia in the mix, they recognize that they are well out of their depth. Just keeping the Opposition together politically has been difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down via negotiations. Obama expressed that view on CBS NEWS “60 Minutes”, saying: “. . . I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate Opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL [ISIS]? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL [ISIS]? He went on to state: “. . . There is no doubt it did not work.” A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been created by the Opposition at the civil war’s start and cannot be created by it now. The Opposition could fight on against the Assad regime minus support, but it would lose, especially with ISIS present. Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare. (Anyone can err, but only a fool persists in his fault.)

ISIS and Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria have reached a considerable size and strength. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those of the Opposition. While mainstream Opposition forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic State on Syrian territory. At one point, the Obama administration seemed willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers, and allowing Assad to remain in power. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. It could have been surmised that the Assad regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, would not survive in the long-run. It seems the Obama administration assumed Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran would grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancing their cause. US military action in Syria has been limited to airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That tack left the door open for others to operate freely in Syria to impose their will. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and has fought alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Moreover, Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate and cooperate well on the battlefield. Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack on Qusayr and took on the mop-up operations there. Syrian and Iranian troops took on rebels in Homs and other points in Homs province. Russia more recently intervened militarily in Syria, it has targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Since October 2015, command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck, limiting ISIS’ ability to direct its fighters. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS in front of Russian allies have been degraded with close air support and heavy strikes by Russia. Presumably they will provide close air support for an offensive by their allies.

US military action in Syria has primarily been airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That has left the door open for other countries to impose their will on the ground. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces, and fight alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” In Syria, Russia has targeted ISIS’ command, control, and communications centers. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, the US might need to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran.

New talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might get their act together for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to keep Assad in power. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, despite UN Talks, the US may be given little choice but to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable, secure peace in their country would be the best outcome.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements heard from the Obama administration on why US military power should be withheld have been made to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders.

Russia

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin wants to change the narrative which has Russia coming in a distant second to the US. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin and his closest advisers share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Little was done to build a relationship with Putin who was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister and was the real power in Moscow. Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012. Based on positive signals from Medvedev on nuclear arms reductions, administration officials got the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. When Putin expressed disinterest, administration officials insisted that he agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.   Apparently retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. Relations were so bad in 2013 that Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.” He further stated, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”

There was no easy way to repair the relationship. In our media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any political leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel is only signaling insecurity. This was the case at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013. When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.” By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US and EU worsened. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace, Russian warships in NATO waters, and Russian claims made on the Arctic. Putin had already shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics. Examples include his actions in Georgia and Ukraine and his proposal for a “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. By taking action in Syria, Putin showed he is also ready to secure Russia’s interests abroad.

The leaders of Germany (despite some controversial energy sector matters) and the United Kingdom are not fans of Putin and have encouraged Obama to stand firm in his dealings with him. Yet, some other European allies fear facing greater problems from Putin. Coping with his abrasive side can be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could try to do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements have been made by the Obama administration, on why US military power should be withheld, to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. The administration will have diplomatic contact and telephone communications with Putin, but keeping a brave face on while coping with his aggressive side will be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations such as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama. The more meetings the two can have in 2016, the better. That would be to the benefit of the people of both countries long-term. Gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo]. A water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often].

The Way Forward

Graviore manent. (Heavier things remain.) Panegyrics for Obama and his administration have already begun to make their way into the media. Still, the specter remains of unresolved policy issues with the potential to worsen and become far more intractable. Arguments can be made that an environment in which such problems could grow was allowed to exist due to the delinquency of the administration. The result of such perceived inadequacies and failures could possibly be passed on to the next administration. A decision to simply sit on problems or contain them would be wrong and likely viewed as a pitfall of fear and resignation. There are approaches the Obama administration could take to defeat or defuse problems it may face from its adversaries. A few were presented here more boiled to the marrow than stripped to the bone as originally promised.

Candidates for the presidency have expressed concern over the same issues in campaign speeches and during debates. Perhaps those who can do better will take office and actually do better during their time in office. It is impossible for deeds to be undone. The Obama administration has done what it wanted to do on foreign policy. When God gives his grace to us, he gives us what we do not deserve. When God gives his mercy to us, he does not give us what we deserve. The Obama administration may very well be able to ride out its final year reflecting publicly on things that are pleasing to remember. However, it is always best to act than react. Setting an agenda for action would be the best action to take.

Obama’s Iran Deal Campaign Amasses Support While Stirring Other Public Concerns

Above is DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons development site at Parchin analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. As shown, Iran appears to have used heavy construction equipment to sanitize the site. Such actions may indicate Iran has not been forthright about its nuclear activities. As the Obama administration campaigns for the Iran deal, Tehran may be engaging in activities that could result in the deal’s collapse.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has spoken with great pride and aplomb the administration about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed on July 14, 2015. The White House’s infectious enthusiasm has spread far and wide to reach its Democratic political base around the nation. The deal has received support from academics and Hollywood celebrities who produced a video encouraging support for the deal to grassroots organizations and community activists who have held small rallies on sidewalks, in parks and in shopping malls. As Obama explained in his August 5, 2015 speech, the deal defines how Iran’s nuclear program can proceed. The deal curtails Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to 3.67 percent and limits its stockpile to 300 kilograms for 15 years, thus increasing the time Iran would need to amass enough weapons grade uranium to make one bomb from 2 or 3 months to a year. Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be repurposed and its Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor will be modified to reduce its proliferation potential. Iran will be barred from developing any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring has been put in place to deter Iran from violating the agreement. The international community has also enhanced its capability to detect violations promptly, and if necessary, disrupt efforts by Iran to build nuclear weapons at declared and undeclared sites. Before sanctions relief begins, Iran must take major steps such as removing centrifuges and eliminating its stockpiles.

The Israeli lobby in Washington, and many politically influential individuals and groups from the Jewish community around the US, have been the most vocal critics of the Iran deal and have been alarmed by what they view as its far-reaching concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged their efforts. He believes lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. In a riposte to criticism, he recently said, “I don’t oppose the Iran deal because I want war. I oppose the deal because I want to prevent war, and this deal will bring war.” Obama’s Democratic support base may have been infected by the administration’s enthusiasm for the deal, but the US Congress seems inoculated from it. Congress poses the greatest challenge to the Iran deal. The administration believed Congressional Republicans would be ready to vote against it before it was signed. It generally views Republican arguments as specious, used only to support a rejectionist position. It was surprised by a few Congressional Democrats who also indicated they will not support the deal, in defiance of Obama. Many are senior Democratic leaders. Those Members are looked upon as enfants terrible, but have not faced castigation from the White House. Scinditur incertum studia in contraria vulgus. (In wild confusion sways the crowd; each takes a side and all are loud.)

In their messages to Congress, Obama and administration officials have urged Members to take the deal whether they like it or not because it’s the only one the US is going to get. The administration would have one believe that if critics among political opponents were to pick up the figurative palate and brush to create anything similar to its “work of art” would result in the creation of a cartoon. One point emphasized by the administration has been that war would be the only option left if the deal is rejected. The administration has been fairly open about the fact that it is ill-disposed to taking military action. It has gone as far as to say there is nothing that can be done effectively by the military to halt the nuclear program. Military action was once repeatedly threatened and declared on the table by the administration only a couple of years ago. However, perhaps those threats were not genuine. Obama has an apparent aversion toward military action that has become woven into his decision making. It has contaminated thinking coming out of the White House on foreign and defense policy. The Iran deal is in many ways a manifestation of Obama’s discomfort with the US military and its utilization. Administration officials and diplomats, while negotiating the Iran nuclear deal operated with a type of tunnel vision, animated with the idea projected from the White House that reaching a deal would be preferable to walking away, left to make a decision on military action. Real perspective of what was happening was lost. US strength seems to have been somehow negated in the Iran Talks. That is ostensibly evinced by the administration’s capitulation to Iran demands. Negotiating to reach peace at any price will always be a quick step toward appeasement. Moreover, advancing the idea with the US public that the US military cannot effectively demolish the Iranian nuclear program may also have had unintended consequences. In a way, the administration has created the impression that the US can no longer intervene against certain countries of a size and strength approximating Iran’s or greater. That could have a negative impact on the US public’s psyche regarding national security. Pictured here is a US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The results of the Iraq War undoubtedly had a strong effect on US President Barack Obama’s understanding of the limits of US military power. However, the results in Iraq say less about the US military and more about the abilities of US political leaders to utilize it. The US military remains unmatched. Advancing the idea that the US military cannot demolish the Iranian nuclear program could have a negative impact on the US public’s psyche regarding national security.

According to a CNN/ORC International poll released on July 28, 2015, overall, 52 percent of the US public says the US Congress should reject the Iran deal, and only 44 percent saying it should be approved. The US public has tended to look at Iran with scrupulosity ever since the fall of the Shah and the US Embassy takeover in 1979. There is a sense of moral superiority over Iran supported by reports human rights violations in Iran and Tehran’s sponsorship of groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran was also said to have supported Shi’a elements of the Iraqi insurgency and Taliban factions in Afghanistan that fought US troops. Still, Iran had never been depicted as a threat to the US directly. What the US public would expect to hear from the administration is that the US military could peel Iran like a pear and be justified in doing so if Iran ever threatened to develop or actually developed a nuclear bomb. Instead, the administration has announced to the US public and the world, that even thinking about military action is unreasonable given its assay of how little the US military could accomplish against Iran’s nuclear program. This is not a surprising development. The US public has been served a steady diet of negative information from administration officials about its military. Whereas there was once the notion in the US public that the military represented US power and prestige, and was a source of pride, there is now a sense of impotence associated with the military and a resignation that US is on the wane. It should be expected that many in the US public would begin to wonder if the US, itself, is well-protected.  Similar feelings surfaced in the US public as it watched the ravenous, pagan Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) move with impunity in Iraq and Syria in 2014, brutally murdering anyone in its way. CNN/ORC International poll results released on September 8, 2014 indicated 90 percent of the US public believed ISIS posed a direct threat to the US. Reportedly, 70 percent believed ISIS had the resources to launch an attack against the US.

The administration’s concerns over military action against Iran seem more of a manifestation of its understanding of US military power. It was apparent in the first term with regard to decision making of Afghanistan and Iraq and remains present in the remnants of the administration’s second term. The results of the Iraq War, in particular, ostensibly had a strong educational effect on Obama with regard to the limits of US military power in general. Still, those results told less about the US military and more about the relative abilities of US political leaders to effectively utilize it. The US military is a well-crafted tool for warfare. However, as with any instrument, it can only perform as effectively as the skill level of the one handling it will allow. Vis consili expers mole ruit sua. (Force without wisdom falls of its own weight.)

When the US acts in a way that conceals its full capabilities as a great military power, it automatically cuts itself down to a size that an opponent may be able to cope with, even if temporarily, thus raising its costs, possibly prolonging a problem.

Obama administration officials are so rapt with the idea of avoiding military action that it glares out of speeches and official statements on the Iran deal and other foreign policy matters as well. Seeing, they do not see. Hearing, they do not hear. Once the Iranians could discern that US negotiators were driven to get an agreement for the White House and sought to avoid war, conditions were created in which there was little remove for maneuver.  The deal reached truly became the best one that could be constructed. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Clearly, Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. Acceptance of that equality appeared confirmed by the administration when it began to make comparisons between the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and the Cold War nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. In reality, there is no comparison.

During the Cold War, in the year 1963, to which the administration specifically referenced, the US and the Soviet Union had forces deployed to achieve mutual assured destruction. As war between US and Soviet Union meant annihilation, any desire to declare nuclear war would be nihilistic by its very nature. The US has remained a strong, nuclear armed superpower. Despite what has been said by the current administration, the US is fully capable of acting militarily to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program or potentially doing even greater damage to Iran. Iran, on the other hand, has limited conventional capabilities at best and no defense or response available against the US nuclear arsenal. Iran would not even be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal. The threat to attack US interests internationally or domestically using unconventional forces or clandestine operatives should not be an effective deterrent to US military action. Nescire autem quid quam natus sis accident, id est simper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur? (Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things in a superior age.) The IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may provide clues on how a dual-track approach may have been created to resolve problems concerning the nuclear issue. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would engage in diplomacy to gain concessions on sanctions, while unbeknownst to them perhaps, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and IRGC elements achieved all goals for the nuclear program.

The 19th century Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, was quoted as saying: “The object of war is to impose our will upon the enemy.” In 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared “heroic flexibility” to be a key concept in the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy. The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan. Senior leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) explained that heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear energy program. In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami, “heroic flexibility 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 meant 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 elaborated by stating: “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.” According to this IRGC interpretation, there was no possibility of authentic Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue. However, given the possibility that the US and its Western allies, themselves, might be willing make concessions, particularly on sanctions, the talks would allow them the opportunity to do so. It is possible that the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility provides clues on how a dual-track approach may have been established to resolve problems over the nuclear issue. Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would engage in diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and IRGC elements would pursue all goals for the nuclear program. Above is commercial imagery of what Der Spiegel reports is a suspected underground nuclear weapons development site operated by Iran and North Korea west of Qusayr in Syria. The nuclear complexes they initially operated in Syria, located at Kibar near Deir al-Zor, were destroyed by Israeli jets and special operations forces in 2007. Recent tests of nuclear warheads in North Korea may have involved Iranian made warheads or warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

A number of different approaches exist to develop material for nuclear weapons beyond what was negotiated in the Iran Talks. Iran has the technological know-how to attempt them. Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center. Iran might be conducting an effective laser enrichment program in secret. Strides have been made by Dehghan’s Defense Ministry to revamp and enhance advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iran’s defense industrial base.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.  The application of those new technologies was evident in the reverse engineering of a US stealth drone downed in Iran, the advent of a new anti-ship system and other naval technologies, and Iran’s greatly enhanced cyber capabilities. The administration might say with certitude that Iran has remained in compliance with the agreement. Still, reports of Iran’s effort to sanitize the facility at Parchin prior to the arrival of IAEA inspectors, in a likely attempt to conceal illicit nuclear weapons development there, should be somewhat disconcerting.

It has been reported that Tehran may have taken its nuclear program outside of Iran. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear facilities was the complex of structures found at Kibar, just east of Deir al-Zor in Syria. During Operation Orchard, on September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft, along with special operations forces, attacked and destroyed the facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other nuclear facilities operated by Iran and Nrth Korea exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, there is a suspected underground nuclear weapons development facility west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. Recent tests of nuclear warheads in North Korea may have involved Iranian made warheads or warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

The Way Forward

Nam cum sint duo genera decertandi unum per disceptationem, alterum per vim, cumque illud proprium sit hominis, hoc beluarum, confugiendum est ad posterius, si uti non licet superiore. (While there are two ways of contending, one by discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to man, the latter to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former.) In a statement on July 14, 2015 regarding the Iran deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry explained, “The President [Obama] has been resolute in insisting from the day he came to office that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon, and he has been equally—equally strong in asserting that diplomacy should be given a fair chance to achieve that goal.” Still, dealing with Iran is tricky. To allay concerns that Iran might violate the deal’s terms, the administration explains doing so would be illogical as Tehran has too much to gain from the deal. In the end, a final decision will be made on the deal one way or the other. However, the virtual abandonment of the option to use military power to urge Iran’s compliance was perhaps an error and the administration should reconsider taking this tack. It has raised concerns in the US public. Apparently, it has built up the confidence of many hardliners in Iran. In the Parliament and at Friday Prayers, the chant “Death to America” is regularly heard again.

By any authentic assessment, the US military is unmatched. Yet, it can only be as effective as the commander-in-chief utilizing it will allow. There may be genuine doubt about what the US military can accomplish vis-à-vis Iran in the administration. However, its near predilection toward denigrating US military capabilities to avoid considering military action as an option must be curbed. Fate might soon play a role in that anyway. A response to overseas activities by Iran most likely related to its nuclear program might soon be required. Other than tolerating denials and succumbing to Tehran’s will, there might be little choice but to halt those activities with military action.