Commentary: Trump-Kim Talks: Will Desire Obey Reason or Will Force Be Used to Overcome Force?

The Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un (above). When US President Donald Trump and Kim meet, hopefully their conversation will be positive, but an uncongenial exchange is possible, the portent of which may be war, made more horrible by nuclear weapons. Sangfroid, skilled diplomacy, and adjustments in thinking on both sides will be required if a sustainable agreement is to be reached. Trump has allowed Kim room to think it through. He must make the right choice.

On March 8, 2018, it was announced by the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), independently, that talks would be arranged between US President Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un. The decision was precipitated by efforts of the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to end rather bellicose verbiage and repeated muscle flexing by the US, Japan, and his country as well, itself, and halt weapons testing by North Korea. The meeting between Trump and Kim would be the first time leaders of the two countries have ever met. Since the end of the Korean War, previous US administrations had no interest at all in the idea. Indeed, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has remained tense since the end of Korean War during which the US along with forces of the UN fought to eject the forces of North Korea, China, and Soviet Union (who were operating covertly), from sovereign South Korean territory. The very bloody fighting was halted by a July 27, 1953 armistice that established a roughly 160 mile long, 2.5 miles wide, Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th Parallel. For 65 years, tens of thousands of troops on both sides of the DMZ have remained heavily armed and on alert in a stand-off. There have been hot and cold periods in relations between the former warring parties. Violent incidents have occurred between them on the ground and in the waters around in the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the armistice has held. While it is hoped that the talks between Trump and Kim will go well, uncongenial talks between them is a real possibility, the portent of which may be a new war, made more horrible, more destructive, by nuclear weapons. Sangfroid, skilled diplomacy, and some big adjustments in thinking on both sides will be required if a new sustainable agreement to end the extremely dangerous situation is to be reached. Here are a few considerations and an outlinng of some elements that may contribute to the forging of such an agreement.

As it was noted in the August 15, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Has Spoken, the Ball Is in Kim Jong-un’s Court, But This Is Not a Game!”, the Trump administration has tried to be reasonable with North Korea. Recall that Trump, with a positive mindset, tried to reach out to Kim. He tried to see the world through King Jong-un’s lens. Trump publicly expressed the view that it must have been difficult for Kim to take on so much responsibility at a relatively early age following his father, Kim Jong-Il. Trump even suggested then that he would be willing to meet with Kim to communicate head to head, brain to brain. A resolution might have been crafted from Kim’s elaborations on what troubles him. It was a sincere search for common ground. Kim did not budge in Trump’s direction. Rather, Trump was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Florida on February 11, 2017 when the North Korea fired an intermediate range missile into the Sea of Japan. It became clear that efforts with North Korea have simply become a struggle against the inevitable. Trump had also urged China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to assist in reducing tensions by talking frankly with Pyongyang.  The administration’s contact with China has resulted in a degree of solidarity from it. In August 2017, China voted to place sanctions against North Korean under UN Security Council Resolution 2371. Those sanctions limited North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead, and seafood. Restrictions were placed North Korea’s Trade Bank and prohibited any increase in the number if North Koreans citizens working in other countries. However, that effort initially did not seem to do much to stop Kim. Advancements made by North Korea and an escalation in provocations continued. To get even tougher on North Korea, in September 2017, UN Security Council Resolution 2375 was passed, limiting North Korea restricting North Korean crude oil and refined petroleum product imports, banned joint ventures, textile exports, natural gas condensate, and liquid imports, and banned North Koreans citizens from working in other countries. The administration intensified a “maximum pressure” campaign on Kim’s regime and its supporters, increasing military exercises in coordination with South Korea and Japan, deploying missile defense systems in South Korea with urgency, sending more firepower there, and encouraging Congress to enact the strongest sanctions possible against North Korea and its enablers. Eventually, in February 2018, the US imposed a raft of sanctions in an effort to target entities linked to North Korea’s shipping and trade sectors. Those entities included one individual, 27 shipping companies, and 28 vessels  Through such harsh economic sanctions, and the much needed, and very helpful cooperation from China and the Russian Federation, albeit with some reluctance, the entire matter has reached this point.

Trump’s Thinking on North Korea and Talks

In utrumque paratus. (Prepared for either alternative.) Trump has made a number of statements concerning North Korea. However, the best source for understanding his positions on Kim and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs before the talks is perhaps his remarks before the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017. In his remarks, Trump explained that North Korea was a member of a small group of rogue regimes that represented “the scourge of our planet today.” Noting what those countries had in common, he explained that they violated every principle on which the UN is based. He added, “They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries.” Trump declared that North Korea was perhaps the worst aming them, being responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of its citizens and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more. Trump reminded that there were a number of very public displays of its outrageous behavior to include the mistreatment of University of Virginia college student Otto Wambier who died only a few days after being returned to the US; the assassination of Kim’s brother with banned nerve agents in an Indonesian international airport; and, the kidnapping of a 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies. Trump explained that North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was a manifestation of the same depraved mental attitude Kim evinced through his violent acts against foreign visitors, his family members, and citizens on the sovereign territory of their own countries. His work on nuclear weapons and missiles threatened the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life. Trump pointed to the fact that some countries not only trade with North Korea, but arm, supply, and financially support it. Trump insisted that it was not in the interest of any country to see North Korea arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles. Trump indicated that he felt Kim was “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”  He declared: “It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future.” Trump closed his remarks concerning North Korea by reminding that the US “has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He added: “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. “

While his comments at the UN were somewhat severe, Trump has indicated that there is room for a degree of flexibility in his thinking by the mere fact that he has agreed to meet with Kim. More apparently, since those remarks were made, Trump has not launched an attack on North Korea to destroy its nuclear weapons and missile programs most likely hoping Kim can reach an understanding on his own of the dangerous situation in which he has put his country or that the maximum pressure campaign would eventually breakdown the ability of his regime to function because his activities would prove absolutely unprofitable. For the moment, Trump has elected to “give peace a chance.” Time will tell how long he will allow that window of opportunity for North Korea to remain open.

Kim’s Concept on the US and Talks

The emotional response of the North Korean people toward Kim, a near religious belief in him, is similar to that which they held for his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, before. The people’s fervor for Kim is at the foundation of opinions and actions formulated and implemented by the government in Pyongyang. Anything that could be considered reasonable must flow from Kim’s ruminations, meditations, concepts, ideals, and intentions. Contrary to practices in Western governments, reason and knowledge have little place. Kim’s intuitive, visceral thinking is cherished. As greatcharlie has emphasized in previous posts, wrong is wrong even if everyone else is doing it. Right is right even if nobody is doing it. However in North Korea, questioning, or worse, challenging a position or notion of the Kim will end badly: imprisonment or death. Given their acceptance of the reality created for them, North Koreans see Trump as a danger, and threat he poses is part of larger picture of the US, a capitalist adversary, seeking conquest, attempting to subordinate their smaller nation. They see Kim as defending them from Trump, from the US threat. They accept that Kim, their Great Leader, has built up the North Korean nuclear arsenal to a level that has given their countrt the capability and capacity to strike the powerful US. Kim’s father and grandfather were unable to achieve that. Inter cetera mala, hoc quoque habet stultitia proprium, semper incipit vivere. (Among other evils, folly has also this special characteristic: it is always beginning to live.)

What the world is hearing from North Korea since the talks were announced is a new Kim whose approach does not emphasize the need to challenge the US with force. North Korea’s official news organization, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in a March 20, 2018 commentary reported that its country’s “proactive measure and peace-loving proposal” have caused a “dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation” to be “created in relations between the North and the South of Korea, and that there has been a sign of change also in the DPRK-U.S. relations.” KCNA further noted that North Korea had begun a “dialogue peace offensive.” To that extent, it explained: “The great change in the North-South relations is not an accidental one but a noble fruition made thanks to the DPRK’s proactive measure, warm compatriotism and will for defending peace.” KCNA also proffered: “Such an event as today could be possible as the DPRK’s dignity has remarkably risen and it has strong might.” The KCNA commentary strongly criticized current and former officials and experts in the US and Japan, as well as conservatives in South Korea, for claiming Pyongyang was pushed into a corner by sanctions. The commentary responded harshly to calls for sustained pressure on North Korea and to skepticism voice that suggests its “peaceful approach” is a ploy intended to gain time or drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. Additionally, KCNA declared: “The economy of the DPRK is rising,” and added, advances in science and technology around the country are “promising the bright future for the improvement of the people’s living standard.” It emphasized: “The dialogue peace offensive of the DPRK is an expression of self-confidence as it has acquired everything it desires.” Lastly,  KCNA called on all parties involved to act with “prudence, self-control and patience.” North Korea, since agreeing to meeting with Trump has gone a step further by scheduling a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for April 27, 2018. While North Korea would have the world believe that a “new Kim” and new North Korea have emerged, one must never forget that Kim is the steward of a tyrannical government, and make no mistake, he rules with an iron fist. The North Korean people live under conditions that no one anywhere would envy. They only know the outside world through Kim’s lies, his deceptions. Only one who might be susceptible to gossamer fantasies could be seduced by Kim’s expedient “charm offensive” to support his supposed position on denuclearization. There is nothing that would lead any reasonable individual to be believe that Kim has a genuine interest in changing his thinking. North Korea has not moved beyond being the moral slum that it was when it emerged from the wreckage of World War II. Truthful assessments expressed in the West about North Korea’s broken society lhave mostly been looked upon by that country’s policy analysts and scholars with bewilderment. Not knowing why anyone would say there was anything wrong with their world, they typically chalk it up to a type of abstruse indignation. Among the more obedient, zealous government officials and other elites, such Western assessments are viewed as a manifestation of arrogance of Western powers which insist that any society or system not designed or created under their philosophies is subordinate in every way. 

What Baker’s Building Blocks Might Require

The building blocks for diplomatic talks and negotiations were well-outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. The renowned US statesman explained that his building blocks work well when properly applied through solid preparation, doing ones homework. Included among the building blocks were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

1. Understanding an opponent’s position

Amat victoria curam. (Victory favors those who take pains.) For negotiators, much as commanders on a battlefield, a full awareness of the situation is the first step in ensuring that once in contact with an opponent, one will be better prepared to cope with common contingencies as well as the unexpected, the reasonable “what ifs” that may arise. To that extent, the opposite party to talks as much as an opposing commander must be given his due. It must be accepted that he seeks success, and will take creative steps or may act in an unexpected manner, to accomplish that. For a smaller or weaker party or force, the aim would be to overcome the odds that are against them. 

For Trump, the goal of talks would be to initiate a process from which a sustainable agreement to halt North Korea nuclear testing, weapons development, and missile development can be reached. If the matter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs is to be decided through diplomacy, reaching such an agreement is a immutable goal for Trump. He must be able to safeguard the safety and security of the US, the safety and security of US military forces and US interests in Asia and the Pacific, and the safety and security of US Allies and their interests in the region. However, Trump will not come to the table using some playbook to which he will adhere rigidly.North Korea can rest assured that Trump will come to talks well-informed and well-prepared to deal with Kim. Moreover, with Trump, Kim will face a US leader with an aptitude to find value in all of the information made available to him even at the negotiating table. He will use what he hears to find an opening in a position or argument or beginning planning future actions. Available information also allows Trump to develop thoughts about his opponents likely moves in advance. He studies how his opponent thinks. 

Kim likely hopes that the talks and negotiation process will result in the elimination of the longstanding policy that had the US provide a nuclear umbrella for South Korea and Japan, safeguarding them from nuclear attack by promising a nuclear response. Kim would also hope to severely limit, or at best, eliminate annual joint military exercises by the US, South Korea, and Japan. Through other efforts,  such as bilateral talks, Kim hopes to severely weaken, or at best, break the decades long security linkages between US, South Korea, and Japan. If Kim arrives at the table unwilling to discuss his nuclear weapons and missile programs and attempts to give a history lecture or offers positions on denuclearization and unification filled with political hyperbole supportive of the self-inflicted false reality North Korea has lived in for decades, there will be little chance of successful talks. A pragmatic, succinct discussion of the matter at hand will be the only way to move the discussion forward and reach any agreement. It is important for Pyongyang to keep that in mind. 

2. Gaining Trust through Personal Relationships

Trump and Kim have neither met nor have had any interaction by telephone. There is no degree of trust between them that would allow a relaxed exploration of territory outside their formal negotiating positions, nonetheless their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. Both have been working from reports in the abstract that presented observations and analyses of others about each other. For diplomats, positive personal relationships can be fostered by joint efforts in ordinary circumstances. However, only so much could ever have been hope for in terms of building personal relationships between US diplomats and fully indoctrinated North Korean officials. The development of such relations, would certainly be frowned upon by North Korea security elements as turning away from their country’s revolutionary ideals, a loss of patriotic zeal and faith in the Great Leader: in other words, treason. To the extent that Trump and Kim can reach agreements on smaller, common issues, there may be hope that they be able to broach larger ones. Reaching agreements on those smaller issues at an early stage, quickly, reasonably, and amicably, would represent the beginning of a constructive dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations. Reaching an agreement on the site of the talks is a relatively small step that could begin the exchange between leaders.

There would be some common requirements insisted upon by protective security elements of the US and North Korea regarding a meeting site. A small sample of those likely required would be: the full consent and support from the leadership of a host country to hold the meeting in their country; the confirmed capability and capacity of security elements of the host country to provide granular security needs, and coordinate with and complement with security units, the efforts of US and North Korean protective security elements if it is anywhere other than the US or North Korea; acceptable facilities for transport of leaders of officials to and from the host country, appropriate accommodations to support leaders and officials traveling to the meeting, an appropriate sized and secure meeting site, whether a official office, hotel, official or historic residence, or some other facility that would appropriately meet the requirements for the meeting. These and other standard requirements must exist if a site even to be considered. Short lists for a meeting site created by both countries might include: the Demilitarized Zone between South Korea and North Korea; Pyongyang,in North Korea; Washington, D.C. in the US; Hawaii in the US; Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden; Oslo or elsewhere in Norway; Copenhagenor elsewhere in Denmark; Helsinki or elsewhere in Finland; Geneva or elsewhere in Switzerland; Paris or elsewhere in France; Berlin or elsewhere in Germany; Rome or elsewhere in Italy; Beijing or elsewhere in China; Seoul or elsewhere in South Korea; Tokyo or elsewhere in Japan; Manila or elsewhere in the Philippines; Saipan Island in the Pacific; and, Wake Island in the Pacific. Every prospective site would need to meet the basic requirements for security. However, each has some political or emotional significance to both countries that might be an asset or liability to it in the selection process.

Regarding Stockholm, Sweden hosts the US interest section in its Embassy in Pyongyang and as has negotiated as a back channel between the US and North Korea on the release of Otto Wambier and has aided efforts concerning three US citizens now being held in North Korea. However, the matters involved is a presidential summit are different. The Swedish back channel should not be mixed up in the development of a new channel at the presidential level on nuclear weapons. Geneva, as a European site, might have value as a neutral site. It has been the site for the hashing out of issues and the crafting of many agreements in the years since World War II. The biggest issue might be distance for Kim. He might sense he too far away from his center of power. To rule with an iron fist, he must remain relatively close to home and keep his ear to the ground to detect even the slightest “revolutionary movements” by so-called reactionaries. While he has travel as recently as March 2018 to China, hidden adversarial elements could potentially see his scheduled absence as an opportunity to act against him. North Korean officials might also have concerns that most European countries that would qualify to host the summit are not only economic partners, but military allies of the US and willing to support US interests. The DMZ has traditionally been a site for talks between US and North Korean senior military officials since the end of the war. The South Korean President and North Korea’s Kim will meet there in April 2018. As South Korea and North Korea are engaged in separate talks, the issues of the Trump-Kim presidential summit should not be blended with that effort. Further, as the site for the first summit meeting between the US and North Korean leaders it may not be of appropriate stature as it evokes immediate memories of a past war and that may not be conducive to generating forward thinking to reach a sustainable, peace agreement agreement. Traveling to South Korea, away from the DMZ, would be fine for the US, but problematic for the North Koreans who would view Kim’s visit as a loss of dignity, and surrender to the notion that the South is the greater and the true Korea.  Pyongyang would certainly satisfy North Korea, but it might be deemed inappropriate to have a sitting US President visit there. Pyongyang much as the DMZ brings the past war to immediate perception and evokes the memory of United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier traveling to Germany for the disastrous Munich Meeting of September 1938. Trump would likely consider any similarity to that as anathema. For Kim, traveling to Washington, DC would be unacceptable in a similar way. Going there would not be felt as an act of peace, but politically and emotionally, an act of submission to Western authority and power. A meeting in Hawaii would evoke negative memories of the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Schofield Barracks, and Hickam Field on December 7, 1941. It may likely heighten the idea that handling a rogue threat to the US with nuclear weapons must not languish in talks but be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Beijing or elsewhere in China would unlikely be a desired choice by the US. China, with some coaxing by the US, has put tremendous pressure of North Korea with regard to it nuclear weapons development and missile development. Yet, China remains a political, economic, and military ally of North Korea, not a neutral party to events. In a similar way, Japan and the Philippines are allies of the US, likely obviating the possibility that Tokyo or Manila or any other site in those countries would satisfy North Korea. Japan has more than once faced the threat of North Korean missiles test fired in its direction. Japan might acquiesce to a US request if asked to host the summit, but the decision might cause some domestic political strains. In the Pacific, Saipan Island, might be a possibility. It was the site of a tragic battle between US and imperial Japanese forces during World War II. While remote, it should be close enough to North Korea that Kim would have less anxiety about traveling there for a day by air or sea. However, the North Koreans might view it as a negative given that it is a US Commonwealth and its the history of being a staging area for US covert intelligence operations in North Korea during the Korean War. Wake Island was the site of the historical October 15, 1950 meeting between US President Harry Truman and US Army General Douglas MacArthur on the status of the fighting in Korea and reaching some agreement on its course. It was also the site of a tragic battle between US and imperial Japanese forces during World War II. Much like Saipan, it would be close enough to North Korea that Kim should have less anxiety about traveling there for a day by air or sea. Unlike Saipan, Wake Island is an unincorporated US territory. Still, Wake Island is controlled by the US Army and the US Air Force which might make it undesirable to the North Koreans. Although all of these considerations could remove these cities and countries from consideration as a site for the summit, there is always the strong likelihood, that certain inconveniences will be tolerated by the US or North Korea and one of them will be selected. Reaching a common point of agreement on the site of the talks in a positive fashion might also serve to set the tone for the talks.

One site that may be a long shot, and may not be on the list of either US or North Korea, but certainly worthy of consideration is Mongolia. Mongolia has relatively positive relations with both the US and North Korea. Although Mongolia is bordered solely by the Russian Federation and China, Mongolia has described the US as its most important “third neighbor.” Currently, targeted US assistance has promoted good governance and the rule of law; helped to nurture a new generation of democratic leaders; invigorated private sector-led growth, economic diversification, and long-term capital investment; and mitigated transnational criminal activity, to include human trafficking, and reduced domestic violence, US training and equipment has supported the professionalization of Mongolia’s defense forces and their continued support for United Nations peacekeeping operations. Because of Mongolia’s long and highly porous borders. The US has also assisted Mongolia with its nonproliferation activities. The US and Mongolia have signed a Bilateral Transparency Agreement, an Investment Incentive Agreement, a Bilateral Investment Treaty, and a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. US President George Bush visited Mongolia in November 2005 became the first US President to do so. Mongolian Presidents have visited the US on several occasions. They have also visited North Korea. Mongolia has injected itself in critical matters in Northeast Asia as the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea. It has urged North Korea to consider emulating its post-Cold War transition model, and uphold rule of law and respect human rights of its citizens. North Korea has sought Mongolia’s help in modernizing its economy and industries. Mongolia has invested in North Korea’s oil industry, reached agreements for 5000 North Korean workers to come to Mongolia. Beyond political and economic issues, an intriguing link between Mongolians and North Koreans are “unique ties of blood”. Reportedly, Koreans and Mongolians ethnically belong to the Altaic language family. Many Korean clans are believed to have come from eastern Mongolia. According to some experts, those ties encourage both countries with each other with mutual respect and understand in way unavailable, with the ostensible exception, mutatis mutandis, with South Korea. The most likely location for the meeting in Mongolia would be Ulan Bator, the capital. Certainly, Mongolia can meet basic security requirements. It is close enough for Kim to travel, either by air or by ground in a day.

3. Reciprocal Confidence Building.

Before any talks occur or follow-on negotiations between the two countries begin, there are certain mutual understandings that must exist between the US and North Korea. There must be mutual respect shown and understanding given to participants and positions expressed in negotiations. To that extent, use of respectful language in addressing issues public to support congenial relations and  promote increased exchanges. This has been a considerable problem to date, and some governance must be placed on public verbiage. No precondition of creating parity in status as powers as talks or negotiations begin. There is no need to create a faux levelling of the playing field established, whereas the negotiations could be described as an “exchange between equals.” In reality, the talks concern North Korea’s  survival, not the survival of the US. The result of talks cannot simply be temporary steps, but a verifiable, sustainable agreement to keep peace in Northeast Asia. Parvis componere magna. (To compare great things with small.)

Acts the US could perform  as confidence building measures might include temporarily reducing or halting aerial exercises until negotiations are established, and then a decision on how to proceed from that point forward would be made. More vigorous talks on reducing military forces along the DMZ in a mutually acceptable way could be arranged between senioe military officials of the US, North Korea, and South Korea. It would represent an effort to make the Korean Peninsula safer from conventional war as well as nuclear exchange. (It would be counterintuitive of North Korean officials to expect Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to accept that with the destructive power of their massive build up of artillery aimed at Seoul that “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would make South Korea safer.) These would be talks far beyond, more complex than those that have been occasionally held on the border between South Korea and North Korea at Panmunjom to handle contentious issues. Talks could be initiated by the most senior diplomats of the US and North Korea on crafting a final agreement on ending the Korean War. The US could recommend that a direct line of communication between Washington and Pyongyang at level of Foreign Minister and Secretary of State. There could be discussions arranged between diplomatic officials to mitigate “nagging issues” that have exist ed since the end of p hostilities in 1953. Incentives might be put in place, except financial giveaways, that would allow North Korea to rejuvenate its own society, reinvigorate its own industries. Suggestions could be sought from the North Koreans on what they feel would be helpful to aid the economic conditions in their country. Much as inviting a sizable delegation from Pyongyang to attend the PyeongChang Olympics, and creating a joint Korean Women’s Ice Hockey team allowed them to move from the shadows of the well walled-in, “hermit kingdom” into the light of the rest world. More visits, more congenial openings to the world could be proposed, encouraged to lift the shades, raise the blinds, and open the shutters for light from the outside world to come into North Korea. (It is likely that such openings would be limited by Pyongyang as such contacts with the outside world for too many North Koreans would be considered potentially destabilizing for its controlled society.) The North Koreans should hardly expect any huge giveaways, no Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to result the talks or negotiations that would cover the enormous expenditures made on the nuclear weapons and missile programs so far. There would be no discussion of purchasing the program.

Acts the North Koreans could perform as confidence building measures could include: the release of three US citizens being detained on varied charges in North Korea; the return of any remains of US troops from Korean War collected by the North Korea; make its own recommendation to create a direct line of communication between Washington and Pyongyang at level of Foreign Minister and Secretary of State. A potent step that Kim or North Korean officials could take, but would seem unlikely, is the return of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship captured on January 23, 1968 and converted into a museum. (It is of questionable utility to officials in Pyongyang particularly now as their country is facing potential annihilation.) Kim or North Korean officials, on their own volition could indicate a willingness to pull back artillery aimed at Seoul. If in Pyongyang, taking these steps would represent a loss of dignity, particularly if they took those steps after talks with Trump, Kim or North Korean officials could claim it was more the result of bilateral talks with South Korea. All of this being stated, however, no matter what Kim may agree with at the talks, if he feels once back in Pyongyang, that he has given too much, he would not hesitate to walk-back, through official statements, any undesirable points. Qui cumque turpi fraude semel innotuit, eriemsi verum dicit amittit fides.  (Whoever has once become known for a shameful fraud, is not believed even if he speaks the truth.)

4. Taking a Pragmatic Approach That Does Not Sacrifice Principles

Trump does not intend to turn down a diplomatic detour similar to that taken while trying to build relations with the Russian Federation. Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia was a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would try to find the solution, and explained that he would give it his best effort. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began with small steps, working groups to settle nagging issues. Although those small steps were supposed to lead to bigger ones, and confidence was supposed to grow that was not the case. Small steps led nowhere. It appears that Russia used then simply as distraction. Seemingly long planned moves in locations such Syria, Ukraine, Estonia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, France, Germany the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, and Montenegro were executed at the same time. No movement on Crimea was even considered or broached in conversations between Tillerson and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as talks between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Denials regarding Russia’s military presence in Eastern Ukraine continued. Intermediate Range weapons were not removed from Kaliningrad. Incessant cyberattacks were followed by denials from Moscow. Reportedly, Russia continued operations to interfere in US elections process nationwide according to intelligence and law enforcement officials. Finally, Putin rolled out new generations of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that Putin claimed US could not defeat. Included was a presentation of how missile could hit Florida, the location of Trump’s Mar-a-Largo Estate. All of those issues eere topped off by Putin’s unwavering and antagonizing denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Elections. After starting with promise, the effort moved metaphorically, one step forward and two steps back. Tillerson is no longer at State, and Trump intends to repair the situation. Hopefully, North Korea has not found anything instructive in what Russia has done.

Despite the long observed attitudes and behaviors of Kim and bellicose rhetoric of government spokespeople in Pyongyang, it may very well be, as experts declare, that the North Koreans are not suicidal. Understanding that should ostensibly provide some edge for Washington. However, it is difficult to deal with a morally flawed leadership. For national leaders lacking moral guidance, there is a greater chance that a mistake, an uncontrolled impulse will lead to disaster.  Much of what Kim has done so far, invest the North Korean treasury into weapons that in the current environment may only lead to his country’s annihilation, has been both unconstructive and self-destructive. There are intelligence estimates that say Kim has used an exorbitant $300 million of North Korea’s national treasury on weapons development. Estimates are that another $180 million has gone toward the production of 460 statues or monuments glorifying the Kims. Without a doubt, Kim is truly wrapped up in himself. While it may seem unimaginable for Kim to trigger an unbalanced, nuclear exchange would bring satisfaction, the 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, Blaise Pascal, offers an interesting thought that might lead one to think otherwise. In Pensées, there is his statement: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5. Being Aware of Timing

As a political leader, there are no reelection worries for Trump at the moment that would lead North Korean officials to believe his decision making would be impacted by election or other political considerations. Trump’s foreign policy initiatives appear somewhat severed from issues shaping midterm elections for the US Congress . Kim also has no reelection worries for Kim. Kim, after all, rules everything in North Korea. However, while experts deemed would take a short amount of time before North Korea is close to developing a nuclear capability that could pose considerable danger to the US, there is an element of uncertainty in those calculations. Kim may achieve his goals even sooner than anyone might predict. Talks would hopefully quell Kim’s  nuclear ambitions before he reaches all of his development goals.

6. Maintaining a Deep Respect for the Politics of the Situation.

After mourning the death of his father Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011,  the younger Kim tried to gain momentum during the fifth session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2012, where he was elected Supreme Leader of the country. Much as his father, he is also referred to as the “Great Leader” by the North Korean people. The title Supreme Leader conferred Kim with all power over the Korean Workers’ Party and other political bodies and effectively concluded the power succession. North Korean elites are obedient and terrified of him.

Fama, malum qua non allud velocius ullum. (Rumor, the swiftest of all evils in the world.) North Korean officials, attempting to prepare Kim for his meeting with Trump, invariably have already been mining through overt information about Trump, to try to more fully understand him, albeit in the abstract. They would undoubtedly like to determine how he will likely approach the talks and possible angles from which he might challenge Kim, and how Kim could explain North Korean positions and demands in a plausible, satisfying way. A task for North Korean officials would be to filter out distractive, musings about Trump presented by his critics. If their briefings are filled with reports based on such critiques of Trump, the talks could prove to be useless which would be tragedy for their side. Perhaps the most useful thing for them to know is that the current concept and intent of US foreign and national security policy is develop from Trump’s thinking. Professional, dutiful subordinates can at best offer policies and approaches impelled by the US President. Some journalists, former politicians and political operatives among Trump’s critics, have apparently become so habituated to engaging in narrow thinking and been victimized their own malicious rhetoric and hateful distortions, that they have completely ignored or forgotten this reality.

The Way Forward

In Act V, scene i of William Shakespeare’s play, Titus Andronicus, the Roman general, Titus Andronicus, has returned from ten years of war with only four out of twenty-five sons left. He has captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor. Obedient to Roman rituals, he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to his own dead sons, earning him Tamora’s unending hatred. As fate would have it, the new Emperor Saturninus makes Tamora an empress and from her new position, she plots revenge against Titus. She schemes with Aaron to have Titus’s two sons framed and executed for the murder of Bassianus, the emperor’s brother. Unsatisfied, she urges her sons Chiron and Demetrius to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, after which they cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her from reporting their crime. Finally,  Lucius, the last son of Titus is banished from Rome. Lucius then seeks an alliance with his sworn enemy, the Goths, in order to attack Rome. Titus, feigning madness, manages to trick Tamora. He captures her sons, kills them, makes pie out of them, and feeds the pie to her. He then kill Tamora and his daughter Lavinia. In Lucius’ camp with the Goths, a Goth soldier who learned the fugitive Aaron, along with his baby, were in an abandoned monastery, brought them back to camp. Lucius’s impulse was to hang the child hang first and have Aaron watch. While in a noose, Aaron makes a bargain with Lucius to save his child in exchange for knowledge of all the horrors that have occurred. Once Lucius agreed to do so, Aaron revealed every violent act directed by Tamora. However, he then tells more about himself, listing other crimes he has committed. He states: “Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think, Few come within the compass of my curse,–Wherein I did not some notorious ill, As kill a man, or else devise his death, Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it, Accuse some innocent and forswear myself, Set deadly enmity between two friends, Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, And bid the owners quench them with their tears. Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors, Even when their sorrows almost were forgot; And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, Have with my knife carved in Roman letters, ‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’ Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things As willingly as one would kill a fly, And nothing grieves me heartily indeed But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” Eventually, Lucius has the unrepentant Aaron buried alive, has Tamora’s corpse thrown to beasts, and he becomes the new emperor of Rome. As Trump alluded to in his September 2017 remarks at the UN, Kim’s regime is extraordinarily violent and he seems to possess a homicidal ideation. South Korea’s main intelligence agency apparently examined the matter in December 2016. Indeed, according to a December 29, 2016 article in Yonhap, the National Intelligence Service (Gukga Jeongbowon), Kim is likely responsible for a record number of purges and executions since fully assuming power. Indeed, the white paper reportedly concluded that in the first five years of his reign, Kim may have dismissed or killed 340 North Koreans, many of them government officials. The white paper additionally explained that the number of purges and executions has also skyrocketed as Kim increased his authoritative grip on the country after he was elected Supreme Leader of the country in April 2012. It was concluded in the white paper that those mass executions of hundreds of high-ranking officials, including the public sentencing of Kim’s uncle-in-law Jang Song Thaek, were part of Kim’s plan to firmly consolidate his inherited power as the third-generation ruler of North Korea. Yonhap quoted the white paper as stating: “There were 3 [purged or executed] in 2012, more than 30 in 2013, greater than 40 in 2014, and more than 60 in 2015.” The white paper added:  “The numbers show a rapid increase.” The white paper further noted that North Korea “temporarily refrained” from mass purges after the sudden execution of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in 2015, but resumed killing senior officials in 2016.

Kim has initiated a charm offensive, presenting himself as an exponent of denuclearization, unification, and peace. However, he has already shown enough of his hand for anyone to conclude his intentions are likely  hostile. Trump knows Kim is a predator and simply trying to manage attention the world’s attention, but perhaps he also sees that Kim is in a dire situation. He seems to be allowing him some room to take a new tact. If everything goes the way of the US, North Korea will scrap its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Sadly, the very likely possibility is that Kim is not directing his efforts at Trump but at South Korea. Talking to Trump may serve to convince the South Koreans of their peaceful purpose. Getting an agreement on anything with the US may be inconsequential  to him. A signal of success in the talks for him would be a unilateral decision by South Korea to halt their participation in US-lead military exercises. Even better for him would be a request in the near future by South Korea for partial, substantial, or the complete withdrawal of US forces from their country before or simultaneous with a dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs. It all seems to be part of a North Korean strategy of gaining control of the Korean Peninsula by getting South Korea to buy into the fantasy that cooperating with it would create conditions for truly peaceful relations between the Koreas. Subsequently, the region would also be made safer, and the door would be opened to genuine Korean unification. If this sort of scenario has been presented to Kim by officials in Pyongyang mainly to soothe his ego regarding the talks, North Korea may be doomed. Negligentia semper habet inforturnam comiten. (Negligence always has misfortune for a companion.)

Tyrannical figures have often self-destructed once their power began slipping from their hands. While he speaks one way, consciously, he may be acting unconsciously to a deeper thought that his regime faces inevitable destruction. Unknowingly, he might very well be setting the stage to lash out in a spectacular way before Trump does. He may attempt to use as much of his existing stockpile of nuclear weapons as possible, any way he can. Kim apparently holds his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in high regard and seems to take counsel of her on occasions. She led a delegation of North Korean officials to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. However, there is no public indication that he has a close associate , a friend that he can rely upon consistently, much as Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar relied upon General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, according him the status of Imperium, holding the power of the Emperor in the Eastern Mediterranean. To that extent, no one in a caring way could comfortably or confidently, approach Kim and counsel him to “Stop chasing your destructive dream of developing a large nuclear arsenal capable of striking the US.” Trump certainly is not a friend of Kim, but it appears that it has been left to him to convince Kim of the truth. Appetitus rationi pareat. (Desire ought to obey reason.)

After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks: Can Russia Shape Those Talks on the Ground?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin remains confident about Russia’s intervention in Syria. He has outlined Russia’s objectives there and is providing the Russian Federation Armed Forces what they need to achieve them. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 calls for talks, but leaves the matter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency open and allows for continued action against ISIS and other Islamic militants. That leaves Putin able to use the forces of Russia and its allies in Syria to help Assad remain in power.

According to a December 18, 2015 New York Times article entitled “After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks,” the UN Security Council, by a vote of 15-0, adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the Syrian civil war. It was reportedly the result of a long term effort of the US and Russia to find common interests to stop the violence in the war-torn country. However, although a plan was agreed upon unanimously on December 18th, sharp differences remain between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. For the US, removing Assad from power in Damascus is a requirement. The resolution makes no mention of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. In truth, what the plan will mean on the ground is uncertain. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with humility on December 18th at the UN Security Council, “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated. But this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”

UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially calls for the following: a ceasefire must be established and formal talks on a political transition must start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusra, are excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, can continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under US supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led. As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to November 18th Syria meeting was essential, but hardly prosaic given its ties to Syria. As a matter of fact, Russia has a congenial relationship with the Assad regime unlike other Permanent Five Members. Russia has been working closely with Iran to provide the Syrian Government with military support. Indeed, Putin went into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. While the administration of US President Barack Obama has been engaged in a desultory effort to remove Assad since 2012, Putin recognized the US would keep working against Assad regime until it fell or ISIS, too strong for the Syrian Opposition to contend with, took control in Syria. Putin has not forgotten the results of the Obama administration’s support of rebels in opposition to Libyan President Muammar el-Gaddafi, a friend of Moscow. Multinational forces under NATO command, mandated to impose a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, exceeded their mission, destroying pro-Gaddafi forces as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell; he was killed. To Putin, it was a cunning deceit and dark tragedy. He does not want anything similar to occur in Syria.

Long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might establish among themselves common facts, presuppositions, and policies for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to lengthen Assad’s tenure as president. Russia, is a very capable military superpower. Indeed, Russia could shape the situation on the ground by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Deliberate progress is being made toward that goal. A large military offensive, purportedly being organized, may allow Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces to regain control of a large portion of Syrian territory. The Syrian Government might work to “ensure” the political perspectives of local political leaders, administrators, and the civilian population, in reclaimed territory were supportive of Assad. Diplomatic efforts at the UN Talks by Russia and Iran would be conducted in conjunction with the military activity. Perhaps UN Security Council vote, rather than create an agreement for Assad’s removal and transition to a government favorable to the US, EU and some Arab States, may have instead convinced Russia and Iran that shaping events on the ground militarily in Syria is the best way to secure their interests. Principiis obsta (et respice finem). Resist the beginnings (and consider the end). Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched the international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and the possibility for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. He will not become subsumed by Syria. If Russia were to act with more force and increase the pace of its operations in Syria, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would become a decisive factor in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks.

Russia on the Ground in Syria

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, wrote in De Vita Caesarum that Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Augustus Caesar) abhorred haste and rashness in a military commander.  He preferred that actions be taken with an appropriate balance of urgency and diligence. Rushing through to execute tasks often led to mistakes and sustained results are not achieved. Accordingly, one of his favorite sayings was festina lente (hasten slowly). Many in the West complained from the start of operations by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria that they were ill-fated, immediately bogged down, or inappropriately conducted. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” 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.” At a December 18, 2015 news conference, Kerry stated in an effusion of sentiment that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting Syrian Opposition groups fighting Assad’s forces and not hitting ISIS forces. Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and possibilities for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Putin in no way wants support Syrian Opposition forces in their effort against Assad so it would make sense for Putin to pace Russia’s actions against ISIS, to learn the landscape and ensure the Syrian Opposition gained no advantages. To that extent, it should have been expected that he would not hesitate to disrupt the Syrian Opposition’s activities where he could. Regarding costs for the Syria operation, so far, Putin has well-managed them. Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Center for Analyses of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, explained: “All available data show us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget.” Senior administration and intelligence officials in the US, in anonymity, agree with that assessment.

Once in Syria, Russia began using many of its latest weapons systems. New systems used have included: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 900 miles away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Reuters quoted Putin as saying: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” However, Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Putin seemed to imply that Russia may ramp up the size and speed of its operations in Syria. By acting more robustly and increasing the tempo of its operations, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would certainly be the decisive factor on the ground in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks. Both the ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught organized by Russia and its allies. Seizing the maximum amount of land possible may very well enable the Syrian Government to influence the political landscape thus furthering Putin’s goal of keeping Assad in power. Heartened by the Syrian Armed Forces ability to fight back, some Syrians living in towns and cities reclaimed by their government might find cause to support Assad, lessening the possibility of his removal a bit more. Protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem. (Protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection.)  A Russian Federation Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H Bomber (above) fires a KH-101 air launched cruise missile at a target in Ildib, Syria. By supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria, Russia might shape the situation on the ground there. If a massive offensive is eventually conducted by Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, in territory taken, the Assad regime may try to “ensure” local political leaders and administrators, and local residents were supportive of Assad.

The Importance of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

Per sequar! (Do your part, I will do mine!) Concerning its diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Russian-Iranian military cooperation was decided upon much earlier. An agreement for a joint Russian-Iranian military effort in Syria came into effect 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, of course, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria to include: IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Hamadani; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hadi Kajbaf; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Reza Khavari; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Mohammad Ali Allahdadi; Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Hamid Mokhtarband; and, IRGC-Quds Force Colonel (Sarhang-e Yekom) Farshad Hasounizadeh.

On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani then took control of the Syria operation, flying often into Damascus. Once the decision on the joint Russian-Iranian effort was made, Suleimani visited Putin and Shoigu in Moscow in July 2015. He outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces, but also explained time remained to reclaim the initiative. Putin decided that it was time to act. Suleimani took on a central role in the coordination of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian activities on the ground. Reportedly, Suleimani was injured by a TOW missile fired by Syrian Opposition rebels on November 12, 2015. In diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 23, 2015 pictured above. Russia and Iran will pursue a singular policy designed to benefit Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

Military Action

According to Russian defense and military officials, Russia’s airstrikes have targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck throwing the process of directing ISIS units into confusion. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS positions in front of the Russian allies have been degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. Presumably they will provide close air support for an eventual ground offensive by Russia and its allies. (Ground forces utilized would primarily be Syrian and Iranian though.) Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets have conducted almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. Russia has also conducted night strikes with damage assessment by drones.

Reportedly, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces believe the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. It would take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Allawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet then Russian Federation Navy port that is important to naval operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies might turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could push farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies may press eastward. A key objective would be to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Another key objective would be to push beyond Aleppo to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, which is the official capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Moving that far out, some believe Russia may seek to co-opt the Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) to help assist in the offensive. Russia has begun to increase the intensity of its attacks in all of the locations mentioned. Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers have primarily been used on command posts, stores of weapons, oil products, and workshops where weapons for suicide bombers are made that are situated along prospective axes of advance of Russia and its allies. Bunker busting BETAB-500 bombs have been dropped from Su-34s near Raqqa with the goal of eliminating command posts along with underground storage facilities for explosives and munitions. Large numbers of ISIS fighters have been eliminated due to such strikes. The above map from the renowned Institute for the Study of War reveals the general pattern of Russian airstrikes and cruise missile strikes in Syria. Both ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught by Russia and its allies. Putin likely wants pro-Assad forces to take the maximum amount of land possible west and north in “Useful Syria” and eastward in Raqqa and Palmyra, to broaden the Assad regime’s area of control and political influence.

To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s were first delivered to the Syrian Republican Guards 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s younger brother, General Ali Maher Assad. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are mostly Russian T-72s which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters. The pace of the deliveries will be determined by the time needed for Russian instructors to train Syrian tank crews on the T-90. Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems have also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment includes: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Russia and its allies have placed a steady onslaught of fire from those systems and from tanks on their opponents’ positions daily. If a major ground offensive gets underway, artillery attacks will surely intensify. Quae non prosunt singular multa iuvant. (What alone is not useful helps when accumulated.) To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters.

A Future Syrian-Iranian Fretwork

With the intermeshing of Iranian forces with the Syrian Armed Forces and the National Defense Front, a picture emerges of what Syrian Armed Forces and what Syrian communities along the axis of the Iranian-Syrian ground attack might look like in a year. One might recall what occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina once the war ended in 1995. Particularly after 1994, members of the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, Iranian Army and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, referred to as “volunteers,” were folded into the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, a few thousand Iranians became part of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power. The Iranian troops settled in many towns and cities in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The extraction of foreign fighters from the postwar Bosnian Federation Armija, and the Federation in general, was mandated by the national government in Sarajevo about a decade after the war due to international pressure. In Syria, the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security will do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents.

The Assad regime likely has a limited degree of influence within the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win. Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. They likely believe that they can cope with that issue in the coming UN Talks. If Assad’s presidency is not viewed as legitimate by the international community following an election, due to any administrative difficulties that may arise or due to actions by the Assad regime or its allies on the ground, the impact on Assad would be minimal. By now, Assad has become inured to the hardship caused by UN sanctions and isolation stemming from the international community’s scorn. Moreover, Assad is, albeit, the “ward” of Russia and Iran. If problems arise, they will cover him. If Russia and its allies can gain control of a good portion of Syria, future threats of an externally orchestrated regime change by force will be precluded. Amicus certus in re incerta. (A sure friend in an unsure matter.) Expectations for talks established under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 may not be based in reality. The picture painted at the UN Security Council was of a factionalized, difficult Syrian Opposition that has suddenly become homogenized. Putin anticipates nothing satisfying from the UN Talks. He sees there is a danger that Russia’s interests will not be served. Rather than wait to be disappointed, Putin will likely seize the opportunity to shape the situation Syria to meet Russia’s interests and those of Tehran and Damascus.

The Way Forward

Fantasies of a future that is desired can become a substitute for reality. Somehow, those on the UN Security Council have anesthetized their consciences to the realities, difficulties, of working with the Syrian Opposition Movement. Indeed, things antecedent have been forgotten. The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support 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. However, very rapidly, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered the entire taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very 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. Now, new talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The UN Security Council now paints a picture of a Syrian Opposition that has become homogenized and is ready for talks. One should anticipate a future that is reality based. Perhaps what the UN Security Council is waiting for regarding the talks will not be worth waiting for. Sero venientibus ossa! (Those who are late get the bones!)

The art that moves Putin’s mind is not easily deciphered. His intuition likely tells him there will be plenty of debate and confusion at the UN Talks. Yet, he is likely more concerned that the process will not serve Russia’s interests. Putin will not standby for that and will try in advance of UN monitored elections to shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests and those of Iran and the Assad regime. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, offensive and defensive actions by the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition and Russia can continue. For Putin, that means Russia and its allies will be able to act “unimpeded” on the ground. Russia’s moves in Syria will not bar it from working on the talks alongside the other Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council. Rather, Russia will be involved fully. With matters such as Libya in mind, its’ diplomats will narrowly focus on what best suits Russia and its allies. If Putin gets his way, there will be little left in Syria for the US to be satisfied with. The drama of the Obama administration’s failed interaction with Putin is nearly played out as the end of its second term nears. Kremlin observers allege Putin feels the administration has been marked by weakness. He will try to take advantage of the situation while it lasts.