Brief Meditations on the Selection of Surovikin as Russia’s Overall Commander in Ukraine, His Capabilities, and Possibilities for His Success

Russian Federation General of the Army Sergei Surovikin (above). In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the Defense Minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” At 56, Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces) in 2017. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs. He has now taken on a great challenge in Ukraine. To better understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine, one must find out more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the mind of the individual responsible for the invasion: Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Federation’s Spetsial’noy Voyennoy Operatsii (Special Military Operation) of 2022 was born of ill will and bad intentions. Whatever sense of certainty Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin may have held concerning the ultimate success, perhaps even expectant of lightning success by  Vooruzhonnije Síly Rossíyskoj Federátsii or the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Armed Forces) when he green-lit the invasion has doubtlessly fizzled down from flames to cinders. Clearly, he was dreadfully incognizant of what a discordant harmony of circumstances very likely could and would do his plans and hopes. Since the early days of success after February 24, 2022, nothing has been working well for the Russian Federation Armed Forces on the battlefield. At this point, res ad triarios venit, the matter has come to triarii. Triarii were the reserve soldiers of the Roman Army. When it reached the point in a war that they were called upon, most or all the front line troops had fallen. Putin in fact, mobilized all male Russian citizens eligible to serve on the front lines in Ukraine. Their performance has been something better than terrible. 

In other countries at war, facing such circumstances, leaders and their advisers come to recognize that intractable decisions, all very difficult ones, lie ahead. Among the choices, Putin could further escalate, resolve to hold any gains while minimizing further losses, negotiate inequitable peace terms, or simply withdraw. US President Richard Nixon found himself in a similar predicament, mutantis mutandis, regarding the US military operations in Southeast Asia. In the end, his Secretary of State “managed” to negotiate what was referred to as “peace with honor” with the North Vietnamese government. Selecting from the choices mentioned would be fine for other countries, however, Putin’s Russia is not like other countries. Still, finding a solution, given how things have panned out, is not simply a matter of satisfying one man’s thinking. The Kremlin is hearing ever increasing criticism for the abominable losses in Ukraine, particularly from elites with close ties to it. Nationalist and ultranationlist political parties and personalities began reacting to the situation in Ukraine with asperity. They, too, know the truth. The change in commander was ostensibly designed to send the message both inside Russia and worldwide that Russia still intends win and will emerge victorious in Ukraine. The Kremlin might hope to convince its perceived audience that with a few adjustments, albeit major changes, everything will be on track and the Kremlin has found the commander who will make things right. The impact of the change, at least around the world, has been akin to a misspelled placard at a protest. The time and energy in the Kremlin put into appointing Sergei Surovikin to direct the war and promote the change publicly as a new beginning, may have been a wasted effort.

Surely, foreign and national security policy bureaucracies worldwide have parsed out Surovikin’s appointment in the round and using logic, have reached their respective conclusions. Yet, what seems logical is not always right. To best understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine one must learn more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the rather unique mind of Putin. Whatever he does he does for  his ownly reason. Whatever he has done, invading Ukraine and suffering heavy losses for example, has never troubled him. Though nearly isolated, he does not appear to beweep Russia’s outcast state. Putin’s decisionmaking and probable moves must remain the subject of indispensable speculations and the development of prospective scenarios. 

As has been the pattern with preceding posts, historical examples are used to demonstrate that no matter how recherché and bizarre events have been in this present-day episode, which hopefully will somehow end diplomatically to the satisfaction of all parties involved, humankind has been beset and strained by parallel issues. Some examples reach back to Antiquity to provide apposite examples of thinking and behavior that most resemble that of Putin and his top acolytes on the Ukraine matter. Additional supportive examples are drawn from the Napoleonic era. In his satirical monthly magazine Les Guêpes (The Wasps), the 19th century French writer Alphonse Karr expressed the apt phrase: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) How often is that the case.

Surovikin’s official Russian Federation Ministry of Defense photo (above). Surovikin has a reputation for being a hard-as-nails, no-nonsense commander who did not suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In his military career, there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Four months later, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

Some Background on Surovikin

In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the defense minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” Note the announcement stated the Russian Federation Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, not Putin, made the decision. With the announcement, Surovikin became the first overall commander of Russian forces committed to Ukraine. With the aim of providing readers with a decent sense of Surovikin’s experience and expertise, greatcharlie has provided a tour d’horizon of his rather event filled military career.

Surovikin, age 56, was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on October 11,1966. He is married and has two daughters. Reportedly, Surovikin stands about 5 feet 10 inches. While many sources state Surovikin is Orthodox Catholic, presumably meaning Russian Orthodox Catholic, the degree to which he is observant is unknown to greatcharlie. He has been awarded the Order of the Red Star, the Order of Military Merit and the Order of Courage three times. He was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation. Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when in 2017 he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces, hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces). It was still a relatively new organization, established in 2015 when the decision was made by the Ministerstvo oborony Rossijskoj Federacii or Minoborony Rossii (the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense) to combine Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily Rossii, (the Russian Air Force), Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, (the Air and Missile Defense Forces), and Kosmicheskie Voyska Rossii, (the Russian Space Forces), were placed under one command. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs.

After graduating from the Omsk Higher Military School in 1987, Surovikin began his career serving as a lieutenant in the Voyská Spetsiálnogo Naznachéniya (Special Purpose Military Units) or spetsnaz. Spetsnaz units, a carry over from the days of the Soviet Union,  have been trained, and tasked as special forces and fielded in wartime as part of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. Not much has been offered at least in the mainstream or independent newsmedia on Surovikin’s work in spetsnaz. He reportedly served in spetsnaz during last stages of the War in Afghanistan, but the specific unit he was assigned to has not been identified. As is the case with special forces in most countries, the primary missions of spetsnaz are power projection (direct action), intelligence (reconnaissance), foreign internal defense (military assistance), and counterinsurgency.

By August 1991, Surovikin was a captain in the 1st Rifle Battalion in the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division in August 1991 when the coup d’état attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was launched in Moscow by the self-proclaimed Gosudárstvenny Komitét Po Chrezvycháynomu Polozhéniyu (State Committee on the State of Emergency) or GKChP. Orders were sent down from the GKChP that would require Surovikin to send his mechanized unit into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. He drove his vehicles into barricades of a group of anti-coup protesters. A short time afterward, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of major. In 1995, he graduated from the renowned Frunze Military Academy. Surovikin participated in the Tajikistani Civil War where he commanded a motor rifle battalion. He then became chief of staff of the 92nd Motor Rifle Regiment, chief of staff and commander of the 149th Guards Motor Rifle Regiment and chief of staff of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. Whether due to qualifications, politics, or whatever might possibly be a factor under the Russian Federation’s system of government, Surovikin’s superior saw enough potential in him to prepare him for flag rank. In 2002, he graduated from Voyennaya Akademiya General’nogo Shtaba Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Military Academy of the General Staff of the RussianFederation). He became commander of the 34th Motor Rifle Division at Yekaterinburg.

By this point in Surovikin’s career, he had acquired a reputation for being a hard as nails, no nonsense commander who did suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In March 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Chibizov accused Surovikin of physically assaulting him for taking leave from his post to serve as an elections observer. In April 2004, Colonel Andrei Shtakal, the 34th Motor Rifle Division deputy division commander for armaments, shot himself in the presence of Surovikin and the district deputy commander after being severely dressed-down by Surovikin. A military prosecutor found no evidence of guilt in both cases. 

In 2004, according to the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s website, Surovikin commanded the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division stationed in Chechnya. He was the chief of staff of the 20th Guards Army from 2005. In April 2008, he made the meteoric rise to army commander. In November 2008, Surovikin became Chief of Glavnoe operativnoe upravlenie General’nogo štaba Vooružёnnyh sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation), essentially the General Staff’s think tank. In January 2010, he became chief of staff of the Volga–Urals Military District, which soon became part of the Central Military District. Reportedly, from November 2011, he headed the working group charged with creation of the Military Police. The Russian newsmedia indicated that Surovikin had already been selected to head the new organization. Though delayed as a result of the intervention of Voyennoy Prokuratury Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the  Russian Federation Military Prosecutor’s Office), apparently, the discussion on the potential creation of the Military Police stirred a parochial struggle between the Russian Federation Defense Ministry and the Military Prosecutor’s Office, Glavnoye upravleniye voyennoy politsii Minoborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the Main Directorate of the Military Police Ministry of Defense Russian Federation) with a strength of 20,000 was stood up. In October 2012, he became the chief of staff of the Eastern Military District. In October 2013, he was appointed commander of the district. On December 13, 2013, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of colonel general. 

In March 2017, Surovikin began his first of two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last about three months. It was reportedly part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Federation Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian Federation Group of Forces in Syria and Syrian Arab Army forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” in the fight against the Islamic terrorist group, ISIS, Surovikin is credited for directing the Syrian Arab Army when it lifted the siege of Deir al-Zour and directing the attack that recaptured Palmyra for the second and last time. On December 28, 2017 he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

While all of that was transpiring, at the end of November 2017, It was the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s journal Krasnaya Zvezda that reported Surovikin’s appointment to Commander of the Aerospace Forces by a presidential decree of November 22, 2017. Interestingly, TASS made special note of the fact that Surovikin became the first combined-arms commander in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union to be put in charge of the Russian or Soviet Air Forces. According to a report published by RBK Group on November 2, 2017, Surovikin had been appointed Commander of the Aerospace Forces in spite of his initial objections.

From January to April 2019, Surovikin again took command of Russian military forces in Syria. It was during that period Surovikin directed the operation against Idlib which included countless air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure. A 2020 Human Rights Watch report states that Russian forces under his command struck Syrian “homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study”.

In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. On October 8, 2022, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

In Surovikin’s military career there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. As aforementioned, during the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt in Moscow, Surovikin was ordered to send his battalion into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. As a result of his action, three anti-coup demonstrators were killed. After the defeat of the coup, Surovikin was arrested and held under investigation for seven months. The charges were dropped without trial on December 10, 1991 because Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin concluded that Surovikin was only following orders. He was promoted to the rank of major afterwards. In September 1995, while Surovikin attended the Frunze Military Academy, he was sentenced to a year of probation by the Moscow garrison’s military court for illegally selling weapons. However, allegations were made that he had been framed. After an investigation, the conviction was overturned. It was concluded that Surovikin had provided a fellow student a pistol for use in a competition, unaware of its intended purpose. One might speculate that Surovikin either had such connections in very high places who were also benefiting from his sideshow that he was allowed to avoid any severe repercussions beyond a very public arrest or he managed to convince authorities that he was cured of his covetous mind.

On dit, there are supposedly whispers in Russia that that Surovikin reportedly had some business concerning the transporting of Syrian ore to Russia on the side. To date, no such rumor, however, has been substantiated or reported on by any mainstream newsmedia source.

Surovikin is an emblem to the Russian military for its “prowess.” The same was said to be true of Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. Russian commanders at different levels have often been made to sound too good to be true, only to have their “gold complexions” dimmed in Ukraine. The latest announcement did not mention Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. While some Western newsmedia sources insist Russian Army Colonel General Gennady Zhidko.was Surovikin’s predecessor, Moscow had not publicly specified that anyone had been placed in overall control of the operation until the announcement concerning his new command.

Surovikin, much as Dvornikov, had the opportunity to become familiar in Syria with the ways in which the US provides assistance to foreign forces on the battlefield. Moscow’s likely hope in that regard would be better understand how US and other NATO military minds might have special operations forces working in Ukraine, what to expect as a result of their “suggestions to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as to planning and operations,” and how to counter their assistance operations. If that were the case at all, perhaps Dvornikov never really discerned enough in Syria to exploit. He certainly failed grasp the role deception plays in US military operations and that failure played a role in opening captured territory up to rapid liberation by Ukrainian forces via a counteroffensive. Surovikin has the opportunity to demonstrate that he learned quite a bit more.

In March 2017, Surovikin (above) began the first of his two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last only three months and was part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian and Syrian forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” On December 28, 2017, he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

Surovikin’s Appointment Shows the World Moscow Has a Handle on Ukraine

Fallaces sunt rerum species. (The appearances of things are deceptive.) As alluded to initially here, one could reach the conclusion at first blush that this change in command amounts to a bromide, an unoriginal idea intended to soothe or placate and have the illusion of problem solving. On the other hand, one might imagine the wisdom in putting a former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge are that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly to force the government in Kyiv to submit. To that extent, close Putin ally and leader of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Raman Kadyrov, has publicly demanded that many top generals of the Russian Federation Armed Forces be sacked. Reportedly, many pro-Russia military bloggers have harshly criticized the prosecution of the war. 

Perhaps it would be reasonable to suspect that Surovikin came highly recommended for the Ukraine job by the same sort behind the scenes that likely lended him a helping hand whenever he landed himself in trouble in the past. Among Russians who welcomed the appointment of Surovikin was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Gruppa Vagnera (Wagner Group), a private military company and a vocal critic of the military leadership. According to a statement put out by Concord, Prigozhin said publicly: “Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army.” He called Surovikin a “legendary figure, he was born to serve his motherland faithfully.” He noted: “Having received an order [in 1991], Surovikin was that officer who without hesitation got in his tank and went forward to save his country.” His appointment was also very vocally welcomed by Kadyrov,

However, Putin’s control and his choices and the relative influence of his inner circle was put succinctly in a January 12, 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime. (The interview came on the heels of Putin’s proposals of Constitutional reforms that ultimately extended his years in power in Russia.) Asked about the degree of Putin’s control in Russia, Lipman responded: “The issue of control is tricky. If one talks about whether government management is efficient in Russia, then no, it is not. And Putin has repeatedly, over his very long time in office, spoken about the need to increase the productivity of labor and quite a few other very important goals. I wouldn’t say he has delivered so well on those. But, if we define control as control over the élite, over making the decisions, of course Putin’s fully in control. And the developments of the past few days are very clear and persuasive evidence of him being in control of making decisions.” Responding to a question about his moves at that time [Constitutional reforms], Lipman said; “This is a demonstration of how Putin is ultimately in charge and how he can make very important decisions by himself in an atmosphere of complete secrecy. We still do not know who was aware of what was in store for the country three or four days ago, and to what extent there is anyone who can actually challenge his decisions, even verbally.” Lipman continued: “Putin rarely consults with anyone, and, even if he does, it is done in a totally opaque way. He’s rarely explicit. Even if he consults with some people in his circle, people leave without having a clear idea of what his goal is and have to guess. Sometimes they guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong. Sometimes they try to curry favor and succeed, sometimes not. At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Given Lipman’s expert view and  the views that have been expressed by greatcharlie on Putin for quite some time–they may hold water for generous readers, it would only be reasonable to believe Putin naturally has morbid fear of anyone desiring to remove him from power. Equally naturally, he acts aggressively and often eccentricity to potential threats to his power, both real or imagined. No one should hope to get too close. Sometimes holding power too long breeds a familiarity that breeds contempt in many. Envy like fire always makes for the highest points. The Roman historian Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), known as Livy, provided in Greek, a history of Rome that begins with the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional founding in 753 B.C. through the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus during his own lifetime. In Book XXXV, section 10 of that history Ad Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) (c. 28 B.C.), Livy discusses the campaign for consul that pitted Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of Gnaeus, who had recently returned from Spain after performing great deeds, and his brother Lucius Quinctius Flamininus, who had commanded the fleet in Greece. Herodotus writes of the challenges facing Scipio: But the eyes of all men were turned upon Quinctius and Cornelius; for both were patricians, contending for one place, and recently-won military glory lent favor to each. But before all else, the brothers of the candidates11 increased their rivalry, since they were the two most celebrated commanders of their age. The greater fame was Scipio’s, and the greater it was, the more it was exposed to jealousy; that of Quinctius was fresher, inasmuch as he had triumphed that very year. There was also the fact that the other had been for about ten years constantly in the public eye, a fact which renders prominent men less venerated from sheer surfeit of seeing them: he had been consul for the second time after the defeat of Hannibal and censor . . . .”

Admittedly, greatcharlie went the long way about presenting this passage from Ad Urbe Condita. However, Livy admirably presents the depth of thinking that led to the challenge to the well-known, long-serving, heroic leader, Scipio, for a newcomer, who could only offer a list of promises and seem so willing, despite his record of service, to challenge the incumbent leader with no apparent reservations. Surely, if this could be used as any measure. Putin always has much to keep his eye on politically.

Putin launched the Ukraine War lacking a worthwhile strategy and recognition of what Russian Federation forces would come up against. What was seemingly completely missed or misunderstood was the degree of support from the US and NATO Member States that Kyiv would receive. No effort, that was apparent, was made to obviate the ability of the US and its NATO allies to supply Ukraine at will as part of the military strategy. From the start, conquering Kyiv was the focus as if Putin and the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces were blinded by rage. The door was left wide open between Poland and Ukraine. Such impetuous schemes and boldness are at first sight alluring, but are difficult to handle, and in the result disastrous.

Perhaps the real problem for Putin was not just that he relied on fortune, but was driven by blind ambition. What has likely been a reliable intuition that had served him well along the way and allowed him a leg-up in giving subjects light were darkened with regarding parsing out the many aspects of this massive enterprise in Ukraine. Polybius (c. 204-122 B.C.), the Greek “pragmatic historian,” and intriguingly an eyewitness to the siege and destruction of Carthage accompanying none other than Cornelius Scipio Aficanus as one of his commanders. In his noted work, The Histories, Polybius covers the period from 264 BC to 146 BC, focusing primarily on the years 220 BC to 167 BC, and detailing Ancient Rome’s conquest of Carthage, which allowed it to become the dominant force in the Mediterranean. In his discussion of the causes for the start of the Carthaginian War, the Second Punic War in Book I, section 8, Polybius cites the work of the Roman analyst Quintus Fabius Pictor (born c. 270 BC, fl. c. 215–200 BC) . Reportedly, this choice may have been based more in homage than irrefutability given concerns even in his time that his work on the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) on Carthage was highly partisan towards the Roman Republic, idealizing it as a well-ordered state loyal to its allies. Fabius was the earliest known Roman historian. His writings, presented in Greek and now mostly lost besides some surviving fragments, were highly influential on ancient writers. He participated in introducing Greek historiographical methods to the Roman world.

Polybius writes: “Fabius, the Roman annalist, says that besides the outrage on the Saguntines, a cause of the war was Hasdrubal’s ambition and love of power. He tells us how, having acquired a great dominion in Spain, he arrived in Africa and attempted to abolish the constitution of Carthage and change the form of government to a monarchy. The leading statesmen, however, got wind of his project and united to oppose him, upon which Hasdrubal, suspicious of their intentions, left Africa and in future governed Iberia as he chose, without paying any attention to the Carthaginian Senate. Hannibal from boyhood had shared and admired Hasdrubal’s principles; and on succeeding to the governor-generalship of Iberia, he had employed the same method as Hasdrubal. Consequently, he now began this war against Rome on his own initiative and in defiance of Carthaginian opinion, not a single one of the notables in Carthage approving his conduct towards Saguntum. After telling us this, Fabius says that on the capture of this city the Romans came forward demanding that the Carthaginians should either deliver Hannibal into their hands or accept war. Now if anyone were to pose the following question to this writer–how opportunity could have better favored the Carthaginians’ wishes or what could have been a juster act and more in their interest (since, as he says, they had disapproved Hannibal’s action from the outset) than to yield to the Roman demand, and by giving up the man who had caused the offense, with some show of reason to destroy by the hands of others the common enemy of their state and secure the safety of their territory, ridding themselves of the war that menaced them and accomplishing their vengeance by a simple resolution–if anyone, I say, were to ask him this, what would he have to say? Evidently nothing; for so far were they from doing any of the above things that after carrying on the war, in obedience to Hannibal’s decision, for seventeen years, they did not abandon the struggle, until finally, every resource on which they relied being now exhausted, their native city and her inhabitants stood in deadly peril.”

As an experienced judoka, Putin knows that there are occasions when one competitor is simply outmatched by another. It is hard to accept when one is the outmatched competitor or the competitor’s loyal supporter. Still, no matter how unpleasant, it is a reality that must be faced with level-headedness. It would seem Putin has not reached that conclusion yet.

(From left to right) Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the Russian Federation General Staff, Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, Putin, and Surovikin at a presentation on aerospace weapon systems. On first impression, one might imagine the wisdom in putting the former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge is that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly. In a January 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime, explained: “At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Surovikin’s Appointment Provides Putin with Some Relief Personally

Choice of Surovikin may have been made simply to provide some measure of relief for Putin. By appointing an overall commander, something that most senior military and political advisers in Moscow might have urged Putin to do earlier or had begun to do once things went poorly, the move would feel something far different than a bromide. Putin would be acting proactively, putting fresh eyes on the matter and hopefully a more successful line of thinking.

Imaginably, there are many things Surovikin can now do under his new title that he could not do as Commander of the Aerospace Forces or commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Perhaps it might be more directly the case that they see something in the way in which Surovikin thinks. Much as with the commanders of air, ground, naval, and space components of  armed forces worldwide, one might presume in the abstract that intelligence preparation of the battlefield, providing predictive intelligence at the right time for use in planning and executing operations, has been a critical aspect of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces efforts to deliver information superiority to its chiefs, and wing and squadron commander’s operating forces over Ukraine. Perhaps in strategy sessions of the armed forces general staff on the Ukraine operation, he proved more familiar with the battlespace as it stands than his counterparts and was thereby tapped for the top Ukraine job. So, he was given the job.

Perhaps in a conversation, an opportunity as his interview with Surovikin for the Ukraine job, Putin expressed concerns about the outcome of the war and Surovikin offered words that provided some measure of relief for him. That would be the conversation leaders who were in desperate situations or facing uncertainty have had with commanders for centuries. In The Histories, Herotudus of Halicarnassus (c. 484 BC-c. 425 BC), the renowned Greek historian of the Hellenic period known for that aforementioned masterwork which mainly discusses the struggles between Greece and Persia. In Book VII, Chapter 234, section 1-3, Herotudus reconstructs a hypothetical conversation between the Persian King Xerxes, and his general and uncle,  Demaratus following the king’s conversation with counselors. He writes: “Xerxes then sent for Demaratus and questioned him, saying first, “Demaratus you are a good man. I hold that proven by the plain truth, for things have turned out no differently than you foretold. Now, tell me this: how many Lacedaemonians are left, and how many of them are warriors like these? or is it so with them all?” “My king,” said Demaratus, “the number of the Lacedaemonians is great, and so too the number of their cities. But what you would like to know, I will tell you: there is in Lacedaemon a city called Sparta, a city of about eight thousand men, all of them equal to those who have fought here; the rest of the Lacedaemonians are not equal to these, yet they are valiant men.” “And how, Demaratus,” answered Xerxes, “can we overcome those men with the least trouble to ourselves?” Come, disclose that to me, for you have been their king and know the plan and order of their counsels.”

Surely, Putin is aware that not even the threat or dismissal or assassination cannot coax brilliance on the battlefield from Russian Federation commanders who simply iack the faculty to do anything that could dramatically change the situation in Ukraine in Russia’s favor. Hoping Ukrainian commanders might drop some almighty clanger that will provide an advantage–friction in battle and that sort of thing–would be futile given they are doubtlessly being “advised” by the some of the best military minds that NATO’s 27 Member States can supply respectively. The assistance in terms of weapons systems, training, and gear alone from NATO Member States has been breathtaking. Putin must have accepted by now that the Russian Federation armed forces are just not good enough to successfully execute the special military operation he chose to launch on February 24, 2022. Perhaps he has muttered to himself in private that all the talent is I n the other side. The Russian Army rejoiced in reputation of the post-war and Cold War Soviet Army. it was an illusion. Putin fell for it. It is all very tragic, especially for the soldiers and civilians on both sides caught up in the fighting and dying.

An army can not change overnight. What Russian top commanders can do is ensure that the many parts of the Russian Federation’s Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, and Naval Forces work to their utmost in harmony to achieve success, but that still might not be enough to change the course of things. One should hardly expect to observe any maneuvers by Russian commanders to represent “an ingenious jesting with [the operational] art.” The Russians unit commanders in Ukraine continue to feign good intentions by ordering the use of overwhelming brute force, incredulously pretending they can muster any approximating power of that kind the field, with the respective objectives of overcoming Ukrainian strength now in what Putin has just recently declared Russian Federation territory. All those commanders are actually doing is sending their troops, the bulk of which are frightfully ill-trained and inexperienced, to near certain defeat. Numerous newsmedia reports in the West, impossible for any following the Ukraine War story to have missed, tell of field grade level commanders, gung-ho on the war and Putin, and eager to make their mark and possibly catch the attention of leaders Moscow, have sent their troops into better than questionable assault on well-armed and well-positioned Ukrainian units. Such assaults are being repulsed at the cost of extraordinarily high tallies of killed and wounded. Some Russian Army companies and battalions have been obliterated in this way. Many of those zealous commanders have ended.up on casualty.lists themselves. Surely such actions may later be found to be a main ingredient of a recipe for what may turn out to be a great military disaster. There may likely be a decisive clash ahead that will mark the end of the Russian presence in Ukraine, and end the myth that Russia is a conventional military power impossible to reckon with, a challenge to the combined forces of NATO.

The situation for Surovikin might in the end parallel that of the singular circumstances surrounding the renowned author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, (c. 460 BC–400 BC). Thucydides once was an Athenian general who was subsequently sacked and exiled following his failure to defend the Greek city of Amphipolis in Thrace. (During his exile, he began compiling histories and accounts of the war from various participants on all sides.) As fate would have it, Thucydides was ordered to go to Amphipolis in 424 because, by his own account in Book 4, chapter 105, section 1, of The History of the Peloponnesian War (hereinafter referred to as the Peloponnesian War):  “He possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and thus had great influence with the inhabitants of the mainland” He wrote in Book I, chapter 104, section 4: “The general who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis” The renowned Spartan general Brasidas, aware that Thucydides was on Thasos and had established considerable influence with the people of Amphipolis, and concerned over possible reinforcements arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Consequently, when Thucydides arrived at Amphipolis, the city had already fallen under Spartan control. As Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance to Athens, reports were received with great alarm. Thucydides became the target popular indignation among the Athenians. As was the usual decision in such circumstances, Thucydides was exiled for his failure to “save” Amphipolis.

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) As it was Thucydides’ fate, one might wonder whether Surovikin has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, withdrawing their units when conditions were most favorable more often than demanding troops hold on to untenable positions until they were forced to retreat in order to survive or surrender. The ability of Ukrainian commanders to think fast and soundly has been key to their relative success as time is always of the essence. They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the later than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.” With continued expert advice and robust levels of assistance from the US and NATO, Ukrainian forces could potentially displace and destroy Russian forces at many points before winter sets in proper.

Putin (right) decorating Surovikin (left) with the Hero of the Russian Federation medal for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria. If one might consider the role politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

The Role Played by Political Likes and Dislikes in Surovikin’s Appointment

In greatcharlie’s humble opinion, now is certainly not the best time in Moscow for anyone but Putin to worry about image or petty politics. It is a very odd situation that this persists in the midst of calamity. Even though there is a war going on in which Russia is not performing so well as an invader, image apparently still matters in Moscow. There are ceremonies, speeches in the Kremlin, scholarly foreign and national security policy conferences still being held around Russia all attendended via special invite only. For the elites, it is all more about status than security. The elites still want to improve their relative proximity to Putin and his inner circle. They want to know, who has what title, who is in charge of this or that, who has the lead, who takes orders from whom

To that extent, if one might consider the role of politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

Certainly Surovikin is not starting from scratch, coming in from outside the centers of power. As mentioned, he served as the Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, a rung few have reached since, as aforementioned, the Russian Air Force, the Air and Missile Forces, and the Space Forces were placed under his responsibility. Few have demonstrated the ability to manage as many operational organizations as he has. Although one might point out that the Russian Air Force at war in Ukraine is the one for which he was responsible for many years. Perhaps its performance has been the least impressive among the armed forces.

The suggestion should not be ignored that Putin may be looking at Surovikin as a possible replacement for Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov as Chief of General’nyy shtab Vooruzhonnykh sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii (General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation), hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation General Staff. To find support for that idea, one would only need to look at the condition of the Russian Federation Armed Forces and what the force he has been responsible for has produced in Ukraine. 

Gerasimov could be accused as having underperformed in keeping the armed forces prepared for war. On the eve of the special military operation’s launch, Russian forces situated near Ukraine’s border were still considered quite formidable. This belief was based not just on numbers and their fierce appearance, but on the assumption that Russia had undertaken the same sort of root-and-branch military reform that the US underwent in the 18-year period between Vietnam and its victory in the first Gulf War. Not all,, but many military analysts in the West speculated that the Russian operation would be something akin to a one act drama with an early curtain. The US Intelligence Community concluded that Kyiv would fall in days. Some European officials thought it might just hold out for a few weeks. 

However, starting on the first day of the of the invasion of Ukraine, all of the walls came down on the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Based on their overall performance in Ukraine, the forces that Russia sent into battle seemed almost counterfeit, poorly imitating what was expected by reputation. One could reasonably suggest  that in recent years their capabilities have been subject to hyperbole. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, the Russian Federation General Staff was fortunate that they are not facing US forces. Copious amounts of supporting evidence for that argument has been presented on the battlefield daily in Ukraine. How the mighty have fallen. 

Negligentia sempre habet infortunam comitem. (Negligence always has misfortune for a companion.) Russian forces were not organized for war with precision. Units were not ready for battle. Soldiers had no idea of what to expect. Ukraine was allowed to use its strengths against Russian weaknesses. Ukraine’s smaller units were able to achieve relative superiority force on force initially in the field. One might have expected that occasionally good fortune would shine upon the relatively lightly-armed Ukrainian forces, and a Russian Army or Russian Naval Troops patrol rolling around or crossing into a danger zone might face ambush, a well-organized ambush, and losses would be suffered. With so many patrol ordered in the different avenues of attack by Russian forces, the greater the chance there would be losses. However, Ukrainian forces outrightly routed Russian units over and over on the battlefield and line of successes would force Russia to adjust its strategy.. The possibility of endsieg, victory against the odds, has become all the more real for the Ukrainians.

As discussed earlier to some extent, Putin surely felt the Russian Federation Armed Forces were well-trained and well-equipped to bring swift victory. To be fair, even to Putin, in practical terms, he mainly had the well-choreographed Zapad military and naval exercises to use as a measure of the Russian Federation armed forces effectiveness. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. There is also the issue that the Zapad exercises were not exactly all that they were made to appear to be in terms of demonstrating their actual strength and capabilities of the Russian armed forces, as well as the possibilities for their use. Imaginably, the truth was deliberately kept from Putin. No matter what was really going on at Zapad, their true value of the exercises can now be discerned by all. Military commanders simply during each exercise went through the motions with elaborate displays of firepower and mobility with little to no concern about how it would all come together in real world situations. The bigger and better Zapad exercises since 2017, lauded by the leadership of the Russian Federation armed forces, were surely “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Putin, himself, had regularly observed the Zapad exercises and everything seemed fine enough.

One NATO commander caught on to what had been happening at Zapad and other Russian military and naval exercises before the invasion and could predict Russian military action in Ukraine might prove for Moscow to be catastrophic. When he was commander of American naval forces in Europe and Africa, US Navy Admiral James Foggo had the duty to plan US military exercises recognized that planning the huge Russian exercises were enormous undertakings. As Russia was planning the Vostok exercises in September 2021 in Siberia, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, declared it would be the largest since the Soviet Union’s Zapad exercise of 1981. It would involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. However, Foggo discovered there was quite a bit of deception involved. Rather than actually field large numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, a company of troops (150 at most) at Vostok, for example, was inflated and counted as a battalion or even a regiment (closer to 1,000). Single warships were passed off as whole squadrons.

How spectacularly did the illusion created by Russian commanders disintegrate when challenged by reality! It is a sad lesson for commanders in all armies to learn from. Beyond the seemingly deliberate desire to create an illusion of capabilities, the impression left is that the Zapad hoax over the years is that a certain disinvoltura apparently plagued the Russian Federation Armed Forces commanders, that has manifested itself at the worst possible time in the worst possible way. Clearly, Gerasimov was the main one who fed Putin’s illusion concerning the capabilities and  readiness of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Maybe Putin has reached a point at which he could see some benefit in making a change. The easiest way is to bring forward other faces from the Russian Federation General Staff. It is somewhat surprising that in the West, investigative journalists have not gotten the hint that Gerasimov is being slow-walked out the door and have not tried to pick up the scent of blood. Some may have. A good guess would be that Surovikin is being advanced piecemeal by Putin to where he wants him to be. Interestingly, the indications and implications of such would also be that Putin has the sense that he has a future as leader of Russia.

Removing Gerasimov would cause some stir, perhaps both plus and minus, even among Putin’s nationalist and ultranationalist following. He has been viewed as a very loyal Putin acolyte for nearly a decade. However, if Putin is acting in that direction, it would surely be “business as usual in the Kremlin” with regard to military commanders at all levels. Putin has already replaced a number of top commanders in its armed forces. In an October 8, 2022 story, RFE/RL expressed from available public reporting, a list of prominent Russian commanders that have been sacked. Reportedly, the head of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Sergei Melikov, wrote on Telegram on October 7, 2022, that North Caucasus native Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov had replaced the commander of the Eastern Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Chaiko. The RBK news agency on October 7, 2022 cited sources close to the Russian military as saying Muradov replaced Chaiko without giving any details. Much of the Eastern Military District’s personnel are engaged in the special military operation in Ukraine, despite the fact that the district is based in Russia’s Far East. Muradov previously led troops in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which have been under Russia-backed separatists’ control since 2014. He also commanded Russian peacekeepers in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

An October 3, 2022 RBK report stated that the commander of the Western Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Zhuravlyov, had been replaced shortly after dramatic Russian losses in northeastern Ukraine in September and the strategic city of Lyman in the Donetsk region had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces. In September 2022, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev replaced. General Dmitry Bulgakov as deputy defense minister in charge of logistics.  Curiously, Mizintsev is accused by the European Union of orchestrating a siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol early in the special military operation that reportedly killed thousands of civilians. In August 2022, state media outlets in Russia said the commander of the Black Sea fleet had been sacked after Ukraine carried out several successful attacks, including the sinking of Russia’s missile cruiser Moskva and the loss of eight warplanes in an attack on a Russian base in Crimea. As Ukraine continues to liberate settlements in its eastern region from occupying Russian troops, Moscow will likely continue to replace top commanders in its armed forces.

However, Putin apparently appreciates Gerasimov as a grand strategist, a military thinker of some talent. He has well-expressed in military terms the imaginings of Putin and his acolytes on the US ambition to conquer Russia for its abundant resources. Worth noting is the very strong and pertinent 2013 Military Statement a response to NATO expansion and Putin’s sense of vulnerability and belief that Russia stands vulnerable to the US “tricks.” In greatcharlie’s November 16, 2016 post entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?”, it was noted that on February 14, 2013 at a conference called “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The parallels with Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia are stark. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. Putin accepted the threat assessment of the Russian Federation General Staff, and signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The notion that Russian borders were being threatened by the US and NATO and adequate defensive measures are being taken has near controlled Russian military thinking since, culminating so far in this great blunder in Ukraine.

Suggestions that Shoigu has concerns over General Surovikin would be almost baseless. As Shoigu and Surovikin have interacted on countless occasions while he commanded Russian Federation Aerospace Forces. No friction between them has been publicly reported at least. Many new weapon systems critical to Russia’s strategic defense have been introduced by the Aerospace Forces under his leadership. One might in this case again harken back to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union to give life to such a suggestion. At the time, Shoigu, fairly senior in the Russian Rescuers Corps, was a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Republic, leading protests against the coup d’etat that forced Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from office. However, the fact that Surovikin and Shoigu were on opposing sides at that time should not hold any real value in any analysis. It is very unlikely that Shoigu has  borne some grudge against Surovikin over the matter. While greatcharlie cannot swear that Surovikin’s rise is nothing signify concerning Shoigu’s perch at the Ministry of Defense, any suggestion that Surovikin’s appointment has meaning in that direction would seem by the by. The truth is that Shoigu’s role in the rise of Putin and his place in the regime is quite firm and rather singular.

One might recall that in 1999, Yeltsin became acutely aware that he was losing power in Russia, and his supporters were shifting to the opposition. Taking steps to ensure his legacy with less than a year left in office, Yeltsin, with the help of political allies, created a new party, with a new face, loyal to him: Unity. Shoigu, who was serving as Minister of  Ministestvo po Delam Grazhdanskoy Oborony, Chrezvychainym Situatsiyam i Likvidtsil Posledstviy Bedstviy (Ministry of the Russian Federation for Affairs for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters Emergency Situations also known as the Ministry for Emergency Situations) or EMERCOM, and part of Yeltsin’s successful re-election campaign in 1996, was named the leader of the pro-president party. He was partnered with Alexander Karelin. Elements of Unity’s economic policy were akin to Thatcherism. It included, for example, the promotion of low inflation, the small state and free markets via tight control of the money supply, and privatization. That said, Unity also supported the reliance on powerful police and security structures and media control. After parliamentary elections in 1999, Unity took a commanding position in the Duma. Having secured some control of the Duma, Yeltsin sought a successor for the presidency.

While Yeltsin called Shoigu “our greatest star,” he chose Putin. Yeltsin first saw promise in Putin when he selected him on July 25, 1998 to serve as head of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB. At the time, Putin was an unemployed deputy-mayor from St. Petersburg. He served at the FSB until August 9, 1999, when Yeltsin called him to the post of acting prime minister. Late that same month, there was a bomb blast in a luxury shopping mall by Red Square which was the first in a series of blast resulting in casualties. In September 1999, there were apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, Dagestan, and Volgodonsk, in Rostov. They collectively killed 300 Russian civilians and wounded hundreds more that were reportedly the responsibility of Chechen Islamic militants. Putin acted forcefully against the mall bombing, the apartment immolations, and a bold Islamic militant incursion from Dagestan into Chechnya, led by Shamil Basayev. The first of 100,000 troops were sent to the northern Caucasus within weeks. In a famous September 24, 1999 speech, Putin spoke with determination in explaining his approach to defeating terrorism: “We will pursue the terrorist everywhere. If they are in an airport, then, in an airport, and forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse . . . The issue has been resolved once and for all.” Putin marked his rise in power by acting viciously against terror. Shoigu’s Unity Party then served as the instrument for Putin’s rise to the presidency. The Unity Party eventually entered into an alliance with the Fatherland-All Russia political bloc. The Party later morphed into United Russia, the country’s current ruling party that rubber stamps Putin’s initiatives in the Duma. Putin has remained in power by confounding insincerity, and he does not suffer fools lightly. Having observed him closely, Putin obviously feels Shoigu well-serves his needs. Shoigu was neither in the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB nor worked in St. Petersburg with Putin. He has been able to make use of his own unique sensibilities to understand his leader’s thinking and feelings. An informed guess by greatcharlie is that Shoigu is unlikely going anywhere, anytime too soon.

As remarked earlier, it is not publicly known which particular aspects of Surovikin’s military background, as seen through the singular lenses of his superiors, took on significance in the decision to select him to tackle the “Ukraine conundrum.” Perhaps those aspects would not be those leaders of other countries might seek in an ideal overall commander of a military campaign. Recalling here how Putin acted in Chechnya when brand new to the post of Russian Federation President, it would not be difficult to understand why Surovikin, with his background, would be the commander he would want handling Ukraine.

One might wonder whether Surovikin (above) has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper.

Surovikin: The Prospective Savior of Russia?

It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. The initial Western newsmedia commentaries of what Surovikin would bring to war as the new joint commander of Russian forces was that he would bring “his violent Syria playbook closer to home.” Reporting focused on a rush of heavy rocket attacks against civilian targets across Ukraine. Naturally, Surovikin’s main challenge in Ukraine, will be to solve the structural problems plaguing the Russian military as it faces fierce Ukrainian forces hell bent on liberating every speck of Ukrainian sovereign territory. Many Western Military experts have expressed that view.

Yet, equally naturally, Surovikin has the grand opportunity to apply his thinking–within the limits of the Russian government system–of what has been done wrong, what has been done right, and what can best be accomplished. As broached in-brief earlier, Surovikin may have expressed a singular interpretation of the battlespace. To be succinct and express it as it might still be taught in military educational institutions at the command and staff level, the battlespace is the mental picture a commander establishes in order to analyze and choose courses of action to apply his military assets in relation to time, tempo, and depth. Perhaps Surovikin’s superiors at this point are hoping that his way of thinking will make a difference on the battlefield and they may be turning to him as a last, best resort. Moreover, it could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately. Much as noted previously, being commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, since 2017 has perchance allowed Surovikin to gain experience, an expertise in managing multidimensional aspects of warfare to create a harmonious or synergistic whole. To that extent, he conceivably would lend an expertise applicable to managing the multidimensional aspects of air, sea, space, land, and information operations in his planning and execution of military operations.

Concerning Russian Federation Aerospace Forces specifically, more than simply contributing to the Ukraine campaign as the situation stands as of this writing, they could play an effective role, indeed have a multiplier effect. With his experience as Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, Surovikin presumably would know best how to manage all assets of the force to strike strategically and tactically to make a positive difference in the war effort. Strategically, destroying Ukraine’s ability to construct weapons and disrupting its supply of weapons from external sources would likely be a priority. Tactically, a priority would likely be coordinating efforts by Russian Federation Aerospace Force assets with ground forces currently facing great pressure or extremely challenging situations almost everywhere on the frontlines from well-armed, well-supplied, and highly-motivated Ukrainian forces.

Dediscit animus sero quod didicit diu. (The mind is slow in unlearning what it has been long learning.) For many, it might understandably be difficult to conceive exactly how under the same leadership, with an additional title, the situation could be altered for its better. With specific regard to the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, large scale exercises of recent years appear to have been nothing more than staged acts, performances that presented illusions about the capabilities of its different branches. Indeed, those performances were full of sound and fury, but reality signified nothing. In the Ukraine campaign, the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces so far have had little impact to the degree that they were present. The Russian Federation Aerospace Forces have been near nonexistent relative to its size, supposed power, and the expectations of military analysts worldwide. Its best fighters and fighter-bombers have been regularly blasted out of the skies by Ukrainian forces using both pricey sophisticated air defense weapons systems gifted to Kyiv by Western powers and shoulder fired rockets operated by individual soldiers in the field. Russian Federation Ground Forces could be assessed as fighting much as one of a third tier power, seemingly lacking sophisticated aircraft and possessing no close air support assets, and they have resultantly suffered losses the same as an trained observer might expect of a type of third tier force against a high-tech force of a military superpower. In this case, it would appear that with the combined support of the US, the United Kingdom, EU, and NATO member countries, Ukraine, to a degree, is fighting much as that very sort of military superpower described. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, one could only imagine the loss Russian Federation forces would have suffered if they had clashed directly with US forces. If any units sent into battle under that scenario would have been spared, it would have been purely a matter of happenstance.

Still, Putin would unlikely put all of his hopes in the hands of these military men. To go a bit further with the hypothetical, perhaps during one of his summit meetings and bilateral talks with Putin, People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping diplomatically and encouragingly shared the suggestion that he might adopt “a new way of thinking about warfare.” Perhaps he discussed the concept of combined warfare without boundaries emphasizing that a complementary level of energy be placed on matters that could not only greatly influence, but even more, have a decisive impact on its outcome. While it may also include the use of armed force, under the concept of combined warfare without boundaries prioritizes the use of non-military forms of warfare: psychological, media, information, technology, cyber, financial, political, social, and espionage. The aim of combined warfare without boundaries is to weaken the US internally and to exploit its vulnerabilities. Since under combined warfare without boundaries the battlefield is everywhere, everything can be weaponized. On a short list of things weaponized, Xi could have told Putin in this hypothetical situation that, optimistically, there still was time to put things right, but certainly there was no time to waste. It is all hypothetical, imagined from the abstract.

In the past, the activities undertaken as part of combined warfare without boundaries would have fallen under the category of intelligence. Perhaps, they still do. Intelligence services engage in open and clandestine, and covert activities, using appropriate tools and available resources, to create or exploit opportunities to act in support of the policies and the interests of their countries. As part of those activities, the everyday can often become weaponized. Putin is perhaps the most prominent Russian intelligence doyen around today having served in the KGB and as head of the FSB. He would very likely see value and potential in that tack, and would surely have a stream of ideas on what he could do away from the battlefield in a robust way. 

Under such a scenario, one could reasonably expect his mind to harken back to the heady days of the Cold War when he served as an officer in the KGB in the former Deutsche Democratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, also known as GDR or East Germany). Putin and his KGB comrades cooperated–“oversaw”–the work of their HVA counterparts who were infiltrating West Germany and countries beyond in the West to not only collect intelligence but to a great extent prepare as best as possible for a likely conflict between Warsaw Pact forces and NATO Member States in Central Europe. For 34 years, Generaloberst Markus Wolf was the very successful head of GDR’s foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA. With frightening efficiency, he developed an array of tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for operating against his Western opponents in advance of any eventual conflict in Europe between East and West, or to break down the societies of opponents of the Eastern Bloc. Throughout the Cold War, his agents poured into West Germany and when possible countries beyond, secured positions, reported about, and influenced the activities of a multitude of organizations in a broad spectrum of areas, social, political, diplomatic, military, commercial, financial, scholarly,  scientific, and informational. (For those interested in more on Wolf and the HVA, see the November 13 2019 greatcharlie post entitled Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997) for a bit more detail on the matter.)

With a dearth of good ideas, some interest could possibly arise in mining benefit from what might seem as an outre thought on first impression. If such a hypothetical exchange on the matter of combined warfare without boundaries were at all true, and under such a scenario, Putin might have put any thought into the matter, he would likely have begun to think beyond the battlefield in a big way. Some might suggest that Putin already was engaged in such activities as observed in Russia’s hybrid warfare attacks in Europe which began in 2014.

Hybrid warfare has been associated with Gerasimov who developed what has been dubbed the Gerasimov doctrine. The Gerasimov Doctrine, an operational concept for Russia’s confrontation with the West, is also a whole-of-government concept that combines military power and soft power across many domains, transcending boundaries between peace and war. However, there is a distinction between combined warfare without boundaries and the Gerasimov Doctrine. When combined warfare without boundaries is applied, the purpose is not to prepare or support the use of force. What is accomplished by non-military means should offset the use of force. To that extent in Ukraine, what is transpiring on the battlefield should not be looked upon as determining the final outcome of the confrontation. 

In a robust application of some simulacrum of combined warfare without boundaries, alterations in a few aspects of Russia’s behavior would likely signal the change. There would likely be greater emphasis on garnering assistance from allies with the wherewithal to contribute assets of high value. That list of allies would likely include: China, Belarus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and perhaps Cuba. Applying combined warfare without boundaries, top diplomats of Ministerstvo Inostrannykh del Rossijskoj Federacii (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation) would approach each to secure the maximum level of assistance. Reports surfaced in September 2022, that Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea to use in Ukraine. That information was reportedly sourced from the US Department of Defense. In August 2022, US officials disclosed that Russia received shipments of Iranian-produced drones. 

Top diplomats would also be tasked with keeping the negotiations door open without leaning too far that way as to encourage bolder action on the battlefield by Kyiv and its NATO backers. It may be the case that when Western representatives approach Putin about peace, he may very well get the sense that he is slowly wearing down their countries and Ukraine. Thereby, his resolve to fight on may be strengthened.

As part of Putin’s twist on an hypothetical implementation by him of a combined warfare without limits strategy similar to that of China might be to green-light direct action of a calibrated nature in a top tier Western country whose foreign and national security bureaucracies surely will not be expecting but actually should have been prepared for once the Ukraine war ignited over some preposterous reasoning began.

Russian Federation intelligence services would be called upon to collect all they can on the level of will Western countries possess on investing in the war: concerns expressed in capitals on capping assistance expenditures, Ukraine’s use of all forms of assistance, and the effects of Moscow’s nuclear threats. Sweet to the ear of Putin would surely be any true Intelligence collected that shows some decay in the united front of the NATO Member States. As the situation stands now, it would seem illusory for the Kremlin to put hope in some deterioration of Western unity or loss of will or concern over the drain funding the war has had on national budgets or an actual pull back of support for Kyiv. Further, if the Russian Federation could hastily organize and task Its respective intelligence services to impact Western countries lined against it in some significant way as to influence events in Ukraine, there would unlikely be enough time to get any operations going before events on the battlefield rendered their fruits meaningless.

As for the Russian Federation Armed Forces, they would still be implored to hold on territory gained. However, in the use of their weapon systems, they would need to be a bit more creative. In the May 30, 2022 greatcharlie post entitled, “Putin the Protector of the Russian People or the Despoiler of Ukrainian Resources: A Look at War Causation and Russian Military Priorities in Ukraine”, it was suggested that ideally for Putin, inhabitants of Ukrainian cities and towns will be displaced due to Russian attacks at such a level that the cities and towns themselves would more or less resemble the southern portion of the city of Famagusta in Cyprus or the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France. (Given results, it almost seems as if Russian engineering officers, artillery officers, air power officers, and ordnance officers, have drawn up plans for the systematic demolition of Ukrainian cities and towns, district by district, block by block, using ordnance fired from a variety of weapon systems.) The intermittent attacks on populated areas may indeed have some psychological warfare, punitive, or perhaps even a tactical purpose. Yet, something of far greater conception may be behind them. Perchance Russian commanders, as part of a preconceived plan, seek to displace Ukrainians from their homes, out of the cities and town through “massive evacuations” to make them easier to “manage,” easier to control. Surely, Putin would appreciate having the West finance and supply for their care on the other side of the Dnieper River. Destroying certain parts of cities and towns would also make them far less desirable. At the time of this writing, UN estimates are that over 4.1 million Ukrainians have moved into other countries. When Ukrainians move west, the better things become concerning Putin’s likely plans for Ukraine. In that same May 30, 2022 post, it was imagined that following the capture of Ukrainian cities and towns, “There might be the chance that citizens of the Russian homeland would be ‘invited’ to relocate and settle in those cities and towns to participate in their reconstruction and, particularly in the southeast, reside in cities and towns in order to reconstruct and work at ports on the Azov Sea and in the many mineral mines. Veterans of the military operation who were so inclined could be invited to relocate to the cities and towns they ‘liberated,’ in effect to enjoy the spoils of the war.”

Hypothetically under an overarching combined warfare without boundaries concept insisted upon by the Kremlin, Russian forces would act more directly to break the will of the Ukrainians throughout the country. While propaganda would likely have limited effect, there would be the possibility of attempting to break the morale of the Ukrainian people and as important, their will to fight on. To that extent, Ukrainian civilian infrastructure would be targeted with the purpose of terrorism the population, albeit the of terrorizing civilians in this manner would be a war crime. As of this writing, Russian forces reportedly have been bombing Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, to include energy facilities. As put by Amnesty International, the intent of these attacks–somewhat in line of combined warfare without boundaries–is “to undermine industrial production, disrupt transportation, sow fear and despair, and deprive civilians in Ukraine of heat, electricity and water as the cold grip of winter approaches.”

Surovikin (center), Gerasimov (left), and Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff (right). It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. It could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated all along a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately.

Surovikin: The Invaluable Multilateral Operations Expert

The renowned 19th century Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde explained: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” Surovikin surely gained experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff, with the permission of DPRK Chairman Kim Jung-un, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned will manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. 

It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in the Donbass began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 troops  of the KPA to Ukraine. On first impression, one might view such talk as part of Russia’s political warfare operations. If their suggested deployment should occur, the DPRK expeditionary force could potentially accomplish enough to offset the somewhat grandiose plans of Kyiv to raise a force of 1,000,000 soldiers to eradicate Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, to include the liberation of Crimea. The DPRK’s military is reported to be the world’s fourth largest, with nearly 1.3 million active personnel, and an additional 600,000 serve as reserve soldiers. Noteworthy is the fact that the DPRK has also offered to send over 1,000 workers to assist Russia in rebuilding postwar Ukraine. It has also been reported that Moscow would provide energy and grain in return for the deployment of DPRK troops. According to UN Resolution 2375, passed in 2017, countries are prohibited from supplying the DPRK all condensates and natural gas liquids (paragraph 13). UN Resolution 2397, passed in 2017, limits the annual amount of crude and refined petroleum that can be provided to North Korea (paragraphs 4 and 5). The former resolution also precludes any joint ventures or cooperative entities with North Korea (paragraph 18). The latter resolution reiterates the prohibition of any DPRK national from earning income in other states (paragraph 8). At this point, it would be unreasonable to think that such UN Resolutions have any meaning. Russian forces in Ukraine are already receiving the DPRK weapons shipments. As for prohibitions on the DPRK regarding arms shipments, its military assistance to Russia would also violate UN resolutions. UN Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, prohibits North Korean exports of heavy weapons, such as tanks, artillery, and missiles, and requires UN member states to prevent their transfer (paragraph 8). UN Resolution 1874 (paragraph 9), passed in 2009, and UN Resolution 2270 (paragraph 6), passed in 2016, expanded the export ban to include all DPRK arms, including small arms and light weapons, as well as “technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel.” Further, under UN Resolution 2270, paragraph 8), the DPRK is also prohibited from any military exports that “support or enhance the operational capabilities of armed forces of another Member State.” Pyongyang has established a record of totally disregarding UN Resolutions.

Napoleon is quoted as saying: “Unity of command is essential to the economy of time. Warfare in the field was like a siege: by directing all one’s force to a single point a breach might be made, and the equilibrium of opposition destroyed.” If DPRK troops, conceivably a combined arms force, were deployed to Ukraine, they would likely be applied as a decisive unified force on the battlefield, rather than separating them into individual units and dole them out as replacements for battered and tattered Russian battalions  Under the latter scenario, the likely command, control, and communications problems might be enormous. Further, the fact that Russian and DPRK have not trained together, at least in recent years, in such great numbers, surely would almost immediately become apparent despite Surovikin’s best efforts. How he would manage that would likely require summoning up answers from the depths of his knowledge, experience and talent. Perhaps the common wisdom is that if Surovikin is hoping to make any decisive moves, they would be planned for the Spring of 2023. However, there is the possibility that he plans to act in the mid-to-late Winter when weather conditions might obviate advantages provided to Ukrainian forces through the use of drones. Astonishingly, Russian forces seem to lack the appropriate equipment to monitor the skies electronically or a frightful lack of competence to do so.

One might recall weather was a key factor in the planning of Germany’ Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for its Ardennes Offensive that was launched on December 16, 1944. As the attack was envisioned, a heavy winter storm would prevent Allied attempts to provide air support and resupply to beleaguered US troops caught head on in the German armored and mechanized rampage through Belgium and Luxembourg, determined to reach the sea at Antwerp. For several days during the offensive, considerable progress was made, causing a huge bulge westward on the US frontlines. The battle was thereby given the name the “Battle of the Bulge.” Eventually, the winter storm that was vital to the German advance cleared enough for Allied air assets to fly in and have a devastating impact against the German attackers. They also managed to deliver much needed supplies–manna from heaven–to US troops. Certainly, it is possible that the drone technology Ukrainian forces possess might be able to overcome any challenges caused by weather conditions. If not, such technologically equipped drones could perhaps be rapidly supplied to them by Western powers

Though DPRK troops hypothetically sent into Ukraine would certainly be prepared to do business and make a good showing on behalf of their Dear Respected Comrade [Kim], it is possible that the hypothesized DPRK force could unexpectedly find themselves caught in a situation with Ukrainian forces similar to what their Russian comrades had in Kyiv and Kharkiv. After all, this hypothetical DPRK expeditionary force, imaginably combined arms,  could hardly expect more close air support from the Russian Federation Aerospace Force than Russian troops have received. They might deploy their own fighters and attack helicopters and fly them out of Crimea or even the Donbas only to find the skies over Ukraine no safer than the Russian pilots had. A disastrous assistance effort to support an ally that comes to mind is that of the British Army which sent a force under Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore into Spain to support the United Kingdom’s Spanish allies against the forces of Napoleon in 1809 during the Peninsular War. The French campaign, initially led by Napoleon himself, defeated the Spanish armies. Moore attempted to attack the French force, a corps under Marshal of the Empire Jean de Dieu Soult with the objective of diverting it. The strength of Moore’s forces was 16,000, which included 15,000 infantry and 9 to 12 guns. Soult’s corps in near parity included 16,000 troops, of which 12,000 were infantry, 3,200 were cavalry. He also had 20 guns

When the plan as conceived failed. Moore withdrew his force, but Soult’s corps relentlessly pursued it. The British retreat, under harsh winter conditions, took Moore’s force across northern Spain while their rearguard fought off repeated French attacks. Both the British and French troops suffered from the severe weather. With the exception of the elite Light Brigade under Robert Craufurd, much of the British force suffered from a loss of order and discipline during the retreat. Having managed against tremendous odds to reach the port of Corunna on the northern coast of Galicia in Spain, a few days ahead of the French, Moore’s troops found their transport ships had not arrived. When the fleet arrived a couple of days later, Soult’s forces also arrived and launched an attack on the British who were embarking. The British had no choice but to fight another battle before leaving Spain, the Battle of Corunna. In the fight which took place on January 16, 1809. Moore’s force repeatedly repulsed attacks from Soult’s force until nightfall, when both sides disengaged. However, during the battle, Moore was mortally wounded, but he died after learning that his men had successfully repelled the French attacks. That night, British forces resumed their embarkation. The last troops sailed away in the morning under French cannon fire. Soult would capture the port cities of Corunna and Ferrol. The outcome of the withdrawal of British forces from Galicia was the fall of northern Spain to the French.

Perchance General Surovikin would also has the solution to avoid a similar catastrophe. Perhaps the hypothetical intervention by DPRK troops would more resemble that of the Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. As it is fairly well-known, during the battle, over 30,000 Prussians under General Der Infanterie Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr Graf Bulow von Dennewitz and General-Leutnant Otto Karl Lorenz von Pirch shaped the outcome at the Battle of Waterloo. The Prussians desperately sought to capture the strategic point of Plancenoit on the right flank of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army. Much of the Prussian’s fight against the 10,000 French defenders in Plancenoit was in the streets of the town itself. Though the battle at Plancenoit was to be hard fought, the Prussians eventually overran the French right, causing the French army to turn and flee. Their success sealed the fate of Napoleon. The Commander-in-Chief of the Prussian Army, Generalfeldmarschall Gerhard Leberecht von Blücher was famously to meet British Army Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington on the battlefield between 9:00PM and 10:00PM, close to the Belle-Alliance farm, where history records, the Prussian general conjured up in French: “Quelle affaire !” Given the battering the Allied army had received throughout the day, the relatively fresh Prussian troops were to take the lead in pursuing the fleeing French troops. The Prussians had neverthless lost 7,000 men. Napoleon’s carriage was to be seized by Prussian cavalry at Gemappes, and the routed French were to be given no quarter by the furious Prussian pursuit. Blücher’s advance guard was finally to reach the outskirts of Paris on June 29, 1815. With Napoleon’s abdication on June 22, 1815, the war would officially end upon the signature of the Convention of St-Cloud on July 3, 1815.  Surely, this would be the sort of outcome that Moscow and Pyongyang would be hoping for.

Surovikin (left), Shoigu (seated right), and Russian Federation Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy (center). Surovikin gained considerable experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK General Staff, with the permission of Kim, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned would manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in Ukraine began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 DPRK troops to Ukraine. Surely, Surovikin would be best suited to manage a multilateral effort with the DPRK.

The Way Forward

Ultimately, it was Putin who created the Ukraine War. Still, commanders are responsible for what was happening to young soldiers in the field. Surovikin expectedly understands the situation in Ukraine. He has been part of the military decisionmaking on the special military operation from its inception. The loss in troops and materiel in Ukraine even to the of top Russian Federation commanders’ eyes must also be absolutely astounding. They are after all only human. All of the ills of the forces they have led have been exposed to the world. The walls have come down. 

Included among root causes for troubles that have surfaced, with which Surovikin or anyone who might come after him must contend, are extremely poor soldier discipline and terrible fieldcraft. Training has likely been lax for decades. Leadership has likely been poor at the lower level leadership for just as long. It is unlikely that senior leaders were circulating or doing so in a meaningful way. One might presume there was a lack of standards particularly among the ground forces and very low morale. If morale was not low in the past, it is surely low now. Russian military technology appears crude as well as corroded in some cases. The world is not discovering how capable NATO has been to confront what was formally understood to be a Russian military juggernaut. Indeed, the world is seeing just how corroded the Russian system is and how that corroded system likely for years had grabbed hold of and mangled the armed forces. What has been manifested from that system in Ukraine has been a longtime in development. Weapons systems which are designed for US military and naval personnel to go to war and win must be robust. This approach is in stark contrast to that of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. An army that operates under the archaic notion that troops are expendable and can be casually sacrificed to achieve objectives will be overcome and overrun in the present era. No one should knowingly be sent to war without being given every chance with regard to their survival and the performance of their equipment.

The above are symptoms of an affliction of corruption that has beset and poisoned authoritarian regimes throughout history. Embezzlement becomes ubiquitous, the powerful feel entitled to spoils befitting their rise. And their countries are bled dry strength and wherewithal stealthily and it is all uncovered in unexpected crises. In every way, the Russian Federation Armed Forces appear to have all along been a paper tiger, emblematic of the very flawed government they serve. William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 66 (1609), provides a short list of ingredients that best describe the realities of authoritarian regimes so appropos concerning the thinly veiled current one of Russian Federation. In the third quatrain, he writes: “And art made tongue-tied by authority, / And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill, / And simple truth miscalled simplicity, / And captive good attending captain ill.”

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 articleas 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.” TheWashington 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 withRossiyskaya 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 toldRossiyskaya 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, aSyrian 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.