Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage

US President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) in Paris at the 100th Anniversary of World War I Armistice. Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter and after being read-in on every new report, Trump would assess where things stood. At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts.

According to an Associated Press story reported on October 26, 2018 in the New York Times, US National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to visit Washington next year. The article entitled, “US Official Says Putin Invited to Visit Washington Next Year”, quoted Bolton as saying, “that “We have invited President Putin to Washington after the first of the year for, basically, a full day of consultations.” Bolton, speaking in Tblisi, Georgia, did not offer any date for the meeting. Still, it is generally understood by US and Russian officials concerned that the Washington meeting would likely take place in early 2019. The proposed meeting It would be Putin’s first trip to the US since 2015 when he met with US President Barack Obama. It is unclear whether Putin would come to  the White House to meet Trump. Other options likely include: Camp David, Mar-A-Lago, and the Trump National Golf Club. Putin’s last visit to the White House was in 2005 when he met with US President George Bush. The proposed 2019 meeting would not be the first between Trump and Putin following the July 12, 2018 Helsinki Summit. On November 2, 2018, Yuri Ushakov, Aide to the President of the Russian Federation responsible for International Affairs, announced from the Kremlin that Trump and Putin would hold substantive meeting at G-20 in Argentina. Ushakov told reporters the meeting on the sidelines of the G-20, taking place over November 30, 2018 and December 1, 2018 would be “lengthy and substantive.” In Argentina, the two presidents would likely talk more about Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Trump has stated that Russia is not abiding by the treaty and that the US needs to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of the Russians and the Chinese. Russia, on the other hand, has contended it is in compliance with the accord.

Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit; in rem praesentem venias oportet, primum quia homines amplius oculis quam auribus credunt, deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta, breve et efficax per exempla. (Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.) Immediately after Helsinki, a second Trump-Putin meeting in Washington was initially bandied about between Trump and his advisers and aides, but it was put on hold. Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin is a manifestation of his desire to begin a new era of US-Russia relations with cooperation and partnership with the Russian President. Trump’s expectations do not appear too great or out of order. However, he understands that he must put considerable effort into the process creating positive relations. The Trump administration has amassed a number of foreign policy successes, to name a few: the destruction of ISIS’ so-called “Islamic Caliphate” and destruction of ISIS as a fighting force; the liberation of Iraq; the strengthening of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel; the suspension of DPRK nuclear weapons and missile testing; gaining big increases in NATO spending; and, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Those successes have hardly been acknowledged by his many critics and detractors who have not as yet turned away from their predictions that the Trump administration would rendezvous with failure and catastrophe on foreign policy. While unable to criticize Trump over his performance during the summit meetings because they were not present, critics and detractors, many in the US news media, and members of his own party, heavily criticized his performance at a follow-on joint press conference. Many of them, upon hearing Trump’s comments, alleged that he was siding with Putin and accepting his denials on Russia’s election interference over the conclusions of US intelligence officials who say Russia certainly did so meddle, ostensibly to benefit Trump.

As it was explained in the September 30, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“, Helsinki was not the great disaster for Trump that most critics and detractors assert it was. Trump most likely wants to make the correct adjustments in his approach, exploit success already achieved by finding more points at which their thoughts touch. As he prepares to meet Putin in Argentina and considers how to shape the meeting in Washington in 2019 will take, greatcharlie look at some of the considerations unique to this ongoing diplomatic process with Putin. As he observes Putin’s moves during the process such as forming the delegation for talks and toning down his hostile rethoric on the US that was regularly heard during his interactions with Obama and has carried over to his administration. Trump also has kept a watchful eye on Putin use his conventional military forces and his nuclear forces. Trump knows a lost cause and would certainly be willing to declare his efforts with Putin as such if that becomes the case. Still, Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine and as best as possible, continue to shut out the array hostile voices attacking him, Concerning Putin’s interest in improving relations, there is the hope that Putin has learned a bit more about Trump, not just through contacts, but also through misjudgments and missteps, such as Putin’s gifting of the football at Helsinki press conference. Faux pas! Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying set of future meetings in which some important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved. Accomplishing that would be one more promise to the US public kept. Eo animo quidque debetur quo datur, nec quantum sit sed a quali profectum voluntate perpenditur. (Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it.)

Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine, continue to shut out the hostile voices. There is the hope that Putin has learned more about Trump. Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying future meetings in which important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved.

Trump Pushes ahead with Putin

Trump began engaging Putin well-aware that Putin is not a moral paragon. He was surely familiar with varied reports from nongovernmental organizations, civil society watchdogs in Russia, journalists, and US government agencies that indicate a considerable number abuses of civil and human rights have occurred under Putin’s reign. Activists in Russia would explain that the soul of the Russian people has grieved during the nearly years of Putin’s rule. Putim’s grip on the Russian public is strong, and he is utilizing all the old security systems with which he is most familiar. In the West, some analysts would not go as far as to call Putin a modern day tyrant, but they would still call him an awful man. Civil rights and human rights are issues that no US President, the leader of free world, could ever eschew concerning Russia or any other country for that matter. Trump would certainly be willing to discuss civil rights and human rights issues concerning Russia with Putin. Indeed, he most likely has already shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be a honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. Trump, knowing Putin as he does now, would be the one US president who could reach Putin on matter without simply prodding him with the “high road” and ensuring nothing good would be achieved. (This is another matter in which the lack of a viable plan of action is most telling of the critics and detractors flawed understanding of the situation.)

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and  smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Trump apparently senses that a general change in the approach toward Putin will create new conditions that will stimulate positive reactions by the Russian leader. Peelng back the layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has tried to create a clean slate and has offered to work with Putin fairly and with mutual respect. With any luck, Putin will eventually recognize what Trump is doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. While it would only be natural to remain somewhat skeptical about his progress with Putin, it seems that he gotten his attention and has him thinking about what he is saying.  According to the renowned Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things either are what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases, is the wise man’s task.” Putin can be counselled but, of course, in the end he must come to the right understanding of the matter on his own.

Trump certainly does not desire to lure Putin to his way of thinking or manipulate him in any way. Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia. All of his efforts must not result in the type of understandings and set of agreements that would fall apart with the coming of a new administration, Republican or Democrat.

Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter with Putin and after being read-in on every new report received from government agencies responsible for studying those encounters, Trump would assess where things stood, look for ways to move things forward and if possible, identify issues on which he might be able to do some real open field running to advance his cause. With that, Trump would then look within himself to design the next best steps he would  take with the Russian leader, steps with which he would feel most comfortable. At the same time that he was working with Putin, Trump was learning about other competitors, rivals, and adversaries in the same way. For example, he has interacted positively with President Xi Jinping of China, and is cautiously optimistic about how the relationship will shake out. He met with Kim Jong-un of the DPRK. He has spoken with leaders who have gone some distance to appear problematic for US policy such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. His interactions with them have led to real improvements in relations with those respective countries. He contended with the initial recalcitrance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. However, relations steadily improved with both. The US Mexico, Canada Agreement proved that with the right words, the right touch, their respective disagreements could be overcome. Those leaders looked at the repercussions of an new agreement, what their respective countries might lose, what they might gain. Consideration of the needs of their people and the national interests came to the fore. Surely, Trump has grown considerably in wisdom about many leaders and on how to proceed on policy since his contact with them. Trump has options regarding his approach to Putin beyond diplomacy, but it appears his choice is to continue trying to find a way to work with him. A rough road often leads to great things. Thomas Paine, the US political theorist and revolutionary, wrote in his pamphlet series The Crisis in December 23, 1776, “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Peeling back any layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has created a clean slate and has offered to work together with Putin fairly and with mutual respect.

At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts with Putin. In every meeting with Putin so far, Trump has broached important and urgent issues ranging from, Syria, Ukraine, nuclear forces, ISIS, terrorism in general, energy, economic sanctions, and perhaps Magnitsky. In Argentina, the two presidents may discuss Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF prohibits the US and Russia from possessing, producing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. On October 20, 2018, Trump explained to reporters following a rally in Nevada, “Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

On October 22, 2018 at the White House, Trump made similar statements concerning his decision to withdraw from the INF as a result of Moscow’s alleged violations and a need to respond to China’s nuclear buildup. He told reporters that “Russia has not adhered to the agreement . . . . Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up.” Trump added: “Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop.” When asked by reporters if that was a threat to Putin, Trump replied: “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.” China was never a party to the 1987 INF, which was signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trump explained that China should be included in the accord. Nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles were eliminated by the US and the Soviet Union under the INF treaty, but China has been building up its capabilities to field the same kinds of weapons. It is estimated that nearly 95 percent of China’s missiles would violate the INF treaty if Beijing were a signatory. Additionally, Trump stated that Russia was not abiding by the treaty, and that the US needed to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of Russia and China. The Kremlin has claimed it has only acted in accord with the treaty’s terms.

Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia.

Putin Pushed ahead with Trump

Simulatio delet veritatem, sine qua nomen amicitiae valere non potest. (Pretense obliterates the truth, without which the name of friendship cannot survive.) Putin has repeatedly said that improvements in US-Russian ties have been thwarted by US political infighting, but voiced hope that Trump could eventually move to repair the fractured relations. Earlier this month, the Russian leader said “playing the Russian card” was a convenient instrument in US politics ahead of the midterm election in November 2018. However, that view is not very precise. Causality aside, it was Russia that drove into Crimea and later interfered with the 2016 US Elections. Putin’s statement skirts these gargantuan issues. The Kremlin has left little doubt that over the years, officials their have not learned much about the actual multifaceted inner workings of the US government and the dynamics of US politics. It was likely that a misunderstanding of how the system worked in the US that may have led officials there to believe that they could ever influence a US Election, not only while US intelligence services and law enforcement agences were watching over everything, but with so many in the US with considerable interests staked on the election’s outcome, and not be detected. The covert operation was discovered and responded to with expulsions and closures of Russian Federation facilities. So much was discovered about the operation that Putin was left with little ability to plausibly deny his knowledge of those particular activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

Putin is likely well aware now that he cannot live off the intellectual support of any of his subordinates when it comes to dealing with Trump and the US. At the dawn of the Trump administration, Putin appears to have been egged on by certain advisers in his cabinet who harbored strong anti-Western and believed Trump could be pressed on certain issues. They likely want to create the impression that they had an easy handle on things.Since that time, a few of them, such as the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for military and space industries, Dmitry Rogozin, have been removed from his Cabinet. However, there is still room for advisers with a mindset that is very suspicious of US actions and intentions. Consider that of the figurative high priest of Russian Federation security, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Bortnikov is not well-known for his contributions to Russia’s foreign policy making and stays out from the public eye. Unknown to greatcharlie is the degree to which Putin might refer to him on foreign policy beyond how an issue might relate to state security. Yet, he is a confidant of Putin, as his trust in Bortnikov has been sustained. Bortnikov would only see traps in what Trump offers. If the attempt at subversion cannot be easily seen, Bortnikov would only assume that it is cloaked. Counsel from other key advisers such as Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev are two members of Putin’s inner circle that are also figurative deep-wells of skepticism and paranoia concerning the US. As part of Patrushev’s mantra, the US constantly seeks to have levers of pressure on Russia and contain his country’s growing influence as means to hold on its waning global leadership. Some might disagree with the notion that Shoigu is very hardline as he most often presents himself as an elegant, dignified general officer, who speaks cordial and measured words. Yet, statements and military strategic concepts produced by his Defense Ministry leave no doubt that he views the US as a serious threat to Russia and it’s interests and everything possible must be done to mitigate that threat which is directed from points 360 degrees around Russia with a deterrence posture and if necessary respond as violently and shrewdly as possible to that threat with all resources available. His Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, signed into law by Putin on January 29, 2013, expresses his country’s defense needs in this fashion. (Shoigu is certainly a man that Trump should keep one eye on.) The key for Putin is to well-manage how much the appraisals of Shoigu and Patrushev should be allowed to insinuate into Russia’s foreign policy making concerning the US. There would be little hope relations could advance in a positive direction if no limits were put on their influence. Theirs is the sort of thinking that might have more value on foreign policy matters concerning other Western countries and the rest of the world. Their verbiage would certainly be of better use in communicating the message that Putin’s aim is to restore Russia to greatness to his political supporters, his wily political adversaries, and mostly hidden, influential elites domestically. Perhaps an answer that might best explain how Putin manages all of his responsibilities as Russian Federation President in any given day would need to be drawn from “metaphysics”. Certain natural talents, unique to Putin, are always in play.  Managing relations with the US as led by the Trump administration, with all of the new approaches and its more businesslike way thinking, has required a lot more effort than likely anticipated. If the Russian President could pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, so far, there has been little sophistication in the moves he and his advisers and aides have made with regard to the US.

What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country. Looking at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and it’s 2016 US Election interference, it would seem incredulous to consider Putin as a victim. He could easily be called the aggressor in both instances. However, it could be, as Trump has posited, that moves by Obama and his administration directed at reigning in Putin, executed with type of adolescent exuberance by many his administration’s officials, backfired immensely. Behavioral scientist, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the US foreign and national security policy establishment, looking at Putin, very likely understood and explained that there would be a considerable negative reaction from Putin to any “narcissistic injuries” or slights. This issue was covered in greatcharlie’s September 30, 2018 post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“. When Putin reacted, and that reaction included in part the capture of Crimea and the 2016 Election interference, it was in ways completely unexpected by the Obama administration. One could posit harshly that the Obama administration found was it was looking for when it poked the “Russian bear”. Undoubtedly, Putin also has his government behavioral scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists analyzing Obama. It is very likely that they, along with Putin, concluded with certitude, that beyond economic sanctions and dismissals of diplomats and intelligence officials, Obama would do precious little in response that would be comparable to the election interference and certainly he would not do anything more aggressive. In fact, the Obama administration was repeatedly caught completely “flat-footed” and totally unprepared to cope with the consequences of its poor relations with Putin. Gladiator in arena consillium capit. (The gladiator is formulating his plan in the arena.)

No joy! Former US President Barack Obama (left) and Putin (right). What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country.

Within the Kremlin, the psychic wounds of its winter actions with the Obama administration may not be soon forgotten. To that extent, they must be given a chance to heal. Putin is the one who must lead the way in Russia. It is a clear aim of Trump’s diplomatic efforts to provide Putin with the necessary space and and calibrated amount of pressure needed to help create the conditions for change. A foundation must be created from which constructive change in support of US and Russian respective and mutual interests. To achieve that, both sides would need to reach some mutual understanding of what is reality and what is truth. Hyperbole would no longer have a place at the table. Sciant quae optima sunt esse communia. (The best ideas are common property.)

Reaching that type of mutual understanding within the Kremlin would not only require Putin’s wishes and his will, but also the supportive efforts of thoughtful advisers such as: Ushakov; Sergey Lavrov, Russian Federation Foreign Minister; Anton Siluanov, Russian Federation Finance Minister; Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the Russian Federation President; and Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov was visibly relied upon by Putin at Helsinki. They are the sort of thinkers who are able to breathe the fresh air of Realpolitik into their analyses. Theirs is a unique ability in an environment of authoritative men in which assessments offered are colored by nationalistic-based theorizing and unoriginal, unimaginative ideas. Perhaps at times, Putin may feel somewhat limited or smothered by such thinking. He may desire a higher order thinking that would result in solid concepts and viable policy options. This is not to state that Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov are not any less nationalistic or patriotic than others in Putin’s immediate advisory circle. Rather it would only mean that when it comes the big picture, their thinking is a bit more incisive, of a higher order, than the others. Overall success for both sides will be signalled by contradictions in traditional ways of thinking and acting on both sides. Recede in te ipse quantum potes; cum his versare qui te meliorem facturi sunt, illos admitte quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines dum docent discunt. (Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.)

For the moment, it may very well be that Putin has little genuine interest in adhering to existing agreements or would likely hold fast to any new ones eventually reached. Certainly, that is understood by the Trump administration. For that reason, along with existing attitudes, biases, about Russia and the Soviet Union from the past, entrees from Putin, new steps, will still at first blush be suspected as chicken feed, deception, until they have been highly scrutinized and determined otherwise. To build confidence and eventually some degree of trust, both sides must approach each other, beginning on small issues, with honesty, morality, and even fidelity. Yet, they must also retain the ability to verify that promised steps are actually taken. That is the fascinating type of cooperation actually seen between the space programs of both countries. It is interesting that despite the cooperation that exists between the two countries on a big issue as space, they remain far apart on foreign and national security policy. Trump’s insistence on talks generates real hope for change.

In an intriguing July 17, 2018 article Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the two countries’ differing agendas. He concluded that the delegations showed the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.”

Advisers and Aides Are Involved in There Special Ways

In an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the differing agendas of the two countries. Venediktov analyzed the seating arrangements as follows: “On the Russian side at that lunch . . . there was, of course, Lavrov and [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. They are equals. But further down sat Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.” Venediktov went on to note: “Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko.” He added: “I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister . . . . Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. [Nikolai] Patrushev of the Security Council wasn’t there. The defense minister wasn’t there. The head of the General Staff wasn’t there. No one.” Discussing the US delegation, Venediktov stated: “If you remove Pompeo and [US Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman, then we see that there is the president’s national-security adviser, [John] Bolton, and senior adviser to the national-security adviser on Russia affairs, Fiona Hill. And, and this is important, we see White House Chief of Staff John Kelly . . . You can see how these delegations differ. John Bolton is in charge of global security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [US presidential] election. Domestic politics. That is what John Kelly does. You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry.” Venediktov concluded that the delegations showed that the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and the election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.” He concluded: “Peskov — that’s public relations,” adding, “Peskov is about selling the summit results.”

It may be as Venediktov as posited that Putin’s contacts with Trump serve some limited public relations purpose. He may be simply building himself up on the international stage by creating the optics of having some equivalence to the US President. On the other hand, there could still be a variety of other reasons for the composition of the Russian delegation at Helsinki. Much as greatcharlie mentioned earlier, Putin may believe the counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov, is most useful in his talks with Trump as their thinking on the US is more incisive, and that mindset may have been evinced in the composition of his Helsinki delegation. It is possible that Putin may be showing deference to the Foreign Ministry and top officials such as the Russian Federation Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko, given their knowledge about the US is not politically based, is erudite, and they have authentic expertise in US affairs. Perhaps Putin’s selection could be an expression of his effort to keep the reactions and words of Shoigu and Patrushev, away from the observant, probing eyes of Trump and his advisers and aides, knowing how strong the anti-US sentiments of those two are. A suspicious mind might suggest Putin deliberately limited the access of certain advisers to Trump and other US officials as a form of information control. Advisers absent from the talks would have less ability to later gauge, influence, or question Putin’s policy approaches with the US. Their views would be limited, inferred from the abstract. They would remain reliant on Putin’s appraisals of the situation. It is possible that Putin’s choices may simply reflect the routine management of his team, for example, he may have selected one adviser over an another based on their schedules or there may have been an urgent need to have his other key advisers cover important matters that fell within their portfolios, that he could not personally attend to. Lastly, there is the possibility that the composition of the delegation could have been the result of a combination of all of these possibilities as well as many others. A certain amount of caution and paranoia is programmed into the Russian leader’s decision making in general. However, Putin’s actions regarding the delegations composition were unlikely an effort to signal that he questioned the loyalty of Shoigu or Patrushev. He knows that their allegiance is strong. Both men would prefer to sleep at his doorstep than rest in their own homes.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton (left) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) in Moscow. Just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, top foreign and national security policy officials of both governments have met to discuss and find answers to important and urgent matters. Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following Helsinki. Bolton had meetings in Moscow with Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev who were absent in Helsinski.

The respective advisers and aides of Trump and Putin have worked feverishly to set up meetings between the two leaders. Yet, just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, advisers and aides, who are the top foreign and national security policy officials in both governments, have met to discuss and find answers important and urgent matters. As it happened, Lavrov had a call with Pompeo following Helsinki. In a statement from the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry, the two diplomats discussed “acute issues on the international agenda and bilateral ties in the context of preparations for planned contacts between the presidents.” More intriguing were contacts between Bolton and Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev in Moscow between October 22,2018 and October 23, 2018. Long before meeting Bolton, Shoigu and Patrushev were surely read-in on all available profiles to include any classified case files on him. They also likely took a good look at his many essays, articles, and editorials on policy, reviewed the greater portion of Bolton’s presentations and panel discussions at policy conferences, and read ttanscripts of his interviews with the US and foreign news media, at academic institutions, and by think tanks. While Bolton is not Trump, both Shoigu and Patrushev likely hoped to gain insight from him into the inner thinking of the administration on foreign and national security policy making: the thinking behind its conceptualization of new policies and how issues, events, and crises are analyzed. From that, they might get a better sense of the possibilities and capabilities of the administration as its presently staffed. Reportedly, US plans for withdrawal from the treaty were discussed in talks with both officials as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained to the Russians that the US decision to pull out of the treaty was logical given that Russia has been violating it and other countries, including China, Iran, and the DPRK are free to develop weapons that would be prohibited under the agreement. He explained that US did not intend to restrict itself of INF while other were not. Bolton also told the Russians that the INF, a bilateral treaty of the Cold War was outdated because technologies have changed and geostrategic realities have changed.

Bolton (left) and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev (right). Bolton has reportedly discussed US plans for withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in his meetings with Shoigu and Patrushev, as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained that the US decision was logical given that Russia has been violating it and countries including China, Iran, and the DPRK, can develop weapons the treaty prohibits. Bolton also explained that technologies and geostrategic realities made the treaty outdated.

Critics and Detractors Remain Ineffective Dream-Killers

Negative perspectives of political rivals, critics, and detractors of Trump have not been mitigated since Helsinki, In fact the October 26, 2018 New York Times article reminded that Trump was widely criticized in the aftermath of Helsinki for failing to publicly denounce Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and alleged that Trump seemingly accepted Putin’s denials of such activity. Indeed, reports alleging that his administration has performed poorly on foreign policy serve more than adequately as an impediments, and perhaps even prevents, many in the US public from recognizing what he has actually achieved. There is unlikely much that Trump could ever do directly to relieve critics and detractors of their more creative than fact based impressions of Putin as a “super spook” still on the beat. No matter what success might be achieved by Trump at Helsinki or on any issue on the foreign policy front, it would not overcome existing impressions of critics and detractors. US Vice President Mike Pence and Trump advisers and aides such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Saunders have explained fervently that Trump has been wholeheartedly engaged in an effort to advance the interests of the US public in his meetings and negotiations with his foreign counterparts. Trump’s plans for handling the meeting diligently were worked out with his high qualified foreign and national security policy team. They were executed along the lines of excellence. However, lacking confidence that Trump would do things right in Helsinki, Trump’s political opponents warned him about having an overly friendly meeting with Putin, particularly after Trump had picked trade battles with longtime US allies. A NATO meeting ahead of the Putin summit was widely panned as being contentious after Trump pressed members of the alliance to increase their defense spending.

Just days before the first summit, Democrats in Congress urged Trump in a letter to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s destabilization efforts, including election meddling, support for the Syrian regime and the annexation of Crimea. US Senate Democrats Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, and Jack Reed wrote to Trump: “While there is a place for dialogue between nations on disagreements and common challenges, such as reducing nuclear dangers, we are deeply concerned that your Administration continues to send mixed messages regarding the Russian security threat.” They added: “During your meeting with President Putin, we ask that you convey that there will be clear consequences for Russia’s interference in democratic processes in the United States and elsewhere, its support for violence and bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria, and the illegal occupation of Crimea.”

If Trump had thought it prudent, he would have had little problem meeting the demands of critics and detractors by repeatedly and enthusiastically admonishing Putin over election interference in the two leaders furtive meetings or publicly. However, the reality is that the steps Trump’s political opponents and other critics and detractors suggest that he take, would never be part of an effective plan for dealing with Putin. Their approaches would guarantee disaster and a set back with Russian leader who is very reactive to slights and who may respond negatively in a very disproportionate way, raising the stakes for everyone. This was discovered by the Obama administration but oddly denied as a reality. Moving in retrograde, back to the disasterous “my way or the highway”, “bullying” approach to the somewhat sensitive Putin used by the Obama administration, which was what US Senate Democrats were recommending, was undoubtedly recognized by Trump as the recipe for disaster. Indeed, the letter amounted to an exposition of the Obama administration’s unsuccessful policy. Consilio melius contendere atque vincere possumus quam ira. (We can compete and prevail better through wisdom than through anger.)

Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, in its spirit, is brand new. Trump will not be soft on Russia. He will act with determination when he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by Moscow. However, while he is in office, he will as best as possible, create space for the US and Russia to do great things together. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole.

The Way Forward

In Act 1 scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato, a kindly, respectable nobleman in the Italian town of Messina, shares his house with his daughter, Hero, his niece, Beatrice, and his elderly brother, Antonio, who is Beatrice’s father. Leonato welcomes a few friends home from a war as the play begins, to include They include: Don Pedro, a prince who is a close friend of Leonato;  Claudio, a young nobleman; Benedick, a wit; and, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John who is sullen and bitter. Almost immediately upon arriving at Leonato’s home, Claudio quickly falls in love with Hero and decide to be married. Through at trick, they manage in the weeks before the wedding to bring together Beatrice and Benedick who knew each other in the past. However, Don John decides to create problems for the others. He acknowledges that his actions against them, as well as his brother, are inspired by jealousy and envy and his bad nature in general when he states: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.” The predominant amount of evidence available in abstract indicates that Putin has the propensity to devise to do evil. Any negative actions taken by Putin during the process of building better relations with Trump and the US would hardly be sudden considerations. Sin is conceived long before sin on committed. Putin’s attitude and behavior toward the US could be considered, not completely, but to a great degree to be the result of a further trust lost during the Obama administration. Actions have consequences and can have rippling effects over time.

When one side in a relationship feels offended or wronged, things will rarely return to normal or even cool off until there is some recognition of the offense or wrong by the offender. Even if the offense or wrong has been forgiven, even after the offender has humbled himself or herself, the relationship may no longer be viable or have room for growth. Much as a broken pot, a relationship can be put together again but it may not hold water the same. In a situation in which a party has been offended or feels wrongly done in some extreme way, it will usually take time before trust is rebuilt. Regarding Russia, Trump came into office refusing to be held captive to the failed approach that the Obama administration took. He would not persist in the same behavior of engaging in very real, needling slights. Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, has a new spirit. There is a better to build better relations with countries around the world. That certainly does not mean Trump will be soft on any countries or on any issue. He will as best as possible, create space for the US and other countries to do great things together. When he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by another country, including Russia, he will act with determination. This may be a key to success of Trump’s approach to Putin. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying to find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole. Recto actio non erit, nisi recta fuit voluntas, ab hac enim est actio. Rursus, voluntas non erit recta, nisi habitus animi rectus fuerit, ab hoc enim est voluntas. (An action will not be right unless the intention is right, for from it comes the action. Again, the intention will not be right unless the state of the mind has been right, for it proceeds the intention.)

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

2f94c64f00000578-3371675-image-a-23_1450865303684

War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

29thu1web-superjumbo

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into 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. Russia has managed 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 leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

1481133826082-cached

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted 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.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

c2swidqwgaadl0q

A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

1049430275

A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in 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, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

635971269655098451-150422-F-QX786-836

US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

bn-rt656_syrtal_p_20170124092506

Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would 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. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

dd955808f1c6f0b9a7f71afb862805af297be7e5

Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

632914834-4630

The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in 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, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted 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.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to 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 UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported 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, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, 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, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the 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 have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by 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. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria. It is also hoped those countries would become responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

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

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

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

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

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

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu Investigates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retaining the Initiative to the End

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia Goes In

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

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

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

The Palmyra Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Our Fight against Violent Extremism Goes Beyond Using Force Obama Says: How to Cope with Errant Young Men

US President Barack Obama says extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will not be defeated solely by military force. He says concerned nations must fight violent extremism by countering messages of those groups that seduce young men, and some young women, to join their ranks. In addition to any work on the internet, success will require aiding families’ efforts to keep their children away from those groups.

In a February 18, 2015 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed entitled, “Our Fight against Violent Extremism”, US President Barack Obama explained “The US has made significant gains against terrorism,” but also noted that “the US campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” Obama’s Op-Ed echoed remarks he made during a three–day summit in February 2015 on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, attended by representatives from over 60 countries. Noting that a US-led multinational coalition was engaged in a fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which he refers to as ISIL, Obama further explained in his Op-Ed that “We know that military force alone cannot solve this problem. Nor can we simply take out terrorists who kill innocent civilians.” As an additional approach, Obama stated that “We also have to confront the violent extremists—the propagandists, recruiters and enablers—who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so.” One plan Obama proffered to counter the interpretation of Islam promoted by ISIS and al-Qaeda is to “help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the internet.”

Despite Obama’s clarion call to arms, in both his Op-Ed and in a speech at the CVE summit, a February 19, 2015 New York Times article indicated many leaders and officials attending the meeting doubted his administration had the ability to counter extremist messages, especially from ISIS. It has a reach and agility in social media that surpasses that of the US government. Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization, emphasized in her presentation at the conference, “We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quality and quantity, and in terms of amplification strategies.” She explained that there was a “monumental gap” between ISIS, which uses social media services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the Obama administration, other governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Havlicek called for private firms to become involved in what she called “the communications problem of our time.” Administration officials sense they face a huge challenge. US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes explained “You could hypothetically eliminate the entire ISIL [ISIS] safe haven, but still face a threat from the kind of propaganda they disseminate over social media.” Yet, most promising about Obama’s Op-Ed was his claim “We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.” Aiding efforts within families to defeat the influence of extremist groups is the key to long-term success.

When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were on the march, there were voices of great men and women in Europe who spoke out against the evil Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini embodied. They outlined the crimes and atrocities committed by authorities of those regimes. Their messages were genuine, truthful, and were heard. For those innocent people trapped in lands dominated by their regimes, those important words helped them hold on to their humanity and hope. However, in the end, the use of force was the only way to defeat such evil. Western powers now search for the bromide to destroy the appeal of ISIS among many young Muslim men and weaken the organization. Developing a counter-ISIS or counter-Islamic extremism message is a formidable undertaking. Nevertheless, the attempt to approach the issue must begin with a look within the families of young Muslim men. The response of those young men to ISIS or a similar Islamic extremist group will be determined foremost by the perspective of his family toward such groups. He must be provided with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundation which would lead him to reject ISIS, or any other Islamic extremist group, hoping to capitalize on his devotion to Islam. By the time the young man first views any Islamic extremist material on the internet, instilled in him should be all that he needs to know in order to turn away from it. Dictum sapienti sat est! (A word to the wise is sufficient!)

Young men who convey an enhanced devotion to Islam in their communities are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. The recruiters condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually, radical views are insinuated into the relationship.

The First Brush with Extremism: The Best Chance Counter It

From many angles, young men are pulled into the grip of Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. A young man can often become bound up in himself, making of himself a very small package. That sort of young man does not learn from adversity or difficulties, but is instead humbled by lessons. He is destroyed by humiliations. Pessimism infiltrates his thinking. He may seek to become somebody to everyone else, and not for himself. Young people of this age become easily seduced by the culture of entertainment. To acquire attention or importance, some young men may seek to convey a religiosity. It may make them seem spooky among some friends and neighbors, but favored among those in their family mosques who will respect their new devotion. Such young men are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. They condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually radical views are insinuated into their relationship.

Long before those recruiters reach the young man, his family may discern changes in his perspective. He has perhaps become more cynical and may often display petulance and a rebellious attitude. The family wants to believe that, in his heart, the young man is approaching Islam as he was taught at home. It will expect the young man to be guided by integrity and that he will keep things in perspective and act with proportion in mind. The family will hope that the young man will accept that the religion it taught him, serves to provide guidance on living in communion with God and on traveling the path that God makes for him. However, the fear may build that he will approach Islam as a novelty and expression of ego or pride, as ISIS presents it. The family, more precisely, his parents, want the young man to be the very best he can be. They may recall great dreams of his youth in which he wanted to be an educator, carpenter, or entrepreneur, or dreams they had of him becoming a doctor, lawyer, political leader, or manage the family business. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While parents may believe there many other things for their son to work toward, that belief will be confounded by his new religious focus that they may notice is straying toward radicalism.

At his university, a young man is taught about the lives of noble figures from the past. Professors discuss the past and the young man learns what works and what does not. He discovers that there is a harmony in how the world works. Further, in the classroom, the young man may begin to understand the human soul, especially his own. Yet, radical views can reach a young man during this learning process. Much as shallows of water may be clear to the bottom, shallow thinking can make a lot of sense to a poor thinker. The young man attempts to find deep truth surrounded by a world of lies provided by the Islamic extremist group. In becoming more radical than spiritual, the young man becomes a more tragic, apathetic figure as time goes on. While the classic approach to religion has stood the test of time, the sorrow of the age is that young men are often drawn to the latest style of the day. ISIS is the latest fad of the day. While claiming to adhere to Islam, ISIS merely pantomimes it. The actions of its members indicate a rejection of God, and are befitting of the most pagan religions on record. Yet, it provides a “feel-good” religiosity for spiritually ungrounded young men, searching for something bigger and better. ISIS recruiters can convince the young man ISIS is that bigger and better thing. ISIS’ establishment of the Islamic Caliphate supports that notion. The idea of being associated with celebrity substitutes itself for worship. It plays into the young man’s vision of his own greatness.

Good parents want their children to be the very best they can be. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While they may want their children to work toward great things, that hope can be confounded by a son’s new religious focus that may be straying toward radicalism. They must fight to prevent that.

It is at this point the family has the best chance to stop the young man by speaking to him as an individual. The Islamic extremist recruiter speaks to him as being one of many. Lies cannot survive before the truth. However, the individual must respond to the truth. The young man must recognize that nothing will be accomplished through ISIS, particularly in this world of impermanence. If the family has raised the young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he may turn back at this point. Many young men, however, prefer to reject the truth and dismiss reality. They redefine what exists into projections of their egos. They then seek to satisfy their passions. The Romans would refer to this as laetizia. They sense the power, celebrity and the satisfaction of the ego that the process of joining ISIS provides. They “understand” ISIS’ need to have its way with others through domination and control. It is what the Romans would refer to as felicitas. However, one degrades oneself by imposing ones world view on others through political slavery and moral bondage. Those who have held absolute power over others in history are often found in the end holding on to power by their fingernails, knowing if they let go they will be destroyed. When challenged, they self-destruct rather than face retribution. Cupido dominandi cunctis adfectibus flagrentior est. (The lust for power inflames the heart more than any other passion.)

There are some young men who reach a point where they seek to strike out on their own, perhaps feeling stifled or encumbered by their routine lives with their families. This occurs worldwide, regardless of religion. The young man may decide to go into a self-imposed exile. He becomes deaf to voices of reason, proportion, truth in his life. He seems to live off a steady diet of ego and soul-searching. He wiles the idea of fabricating a life and a reality that cannot be built. When this youthful zeal becomes tied in young Muslim men to the illusion that ISIS or another Islamic extremist group will allow for the best use of his powers, he may be drawn by the conviviality of recruiters or gossamer fantasies of brotherhood and unity offered by ISIS and other groups on the internet. His family’s only hope is that the young man will discover his error early on. If not, he may travel to Syria or Iraq where many soul-searching young men are killed.

Hoping Seeds of Reason Sown Earlier Will Sprout

No matter how a young man eventually arrives on the road to Syria or Iraq, he is undoubtedly filled with an anticipation of what he might find. He likely believes that away from his home, his family, a paradise awaits. This thinking is promoted by the ISIS recruiters with whom they have dealt. In a euphoric state, the young man views his surroundings as being lush. As he passes through the so-called Islamic Caliphate, his “new home,” he is impressed by the size of the territory the group holds. He sees the nearly endless columns of vehicles and heavy weapons captured from the Iraqi Security Forces. He observes ISIS fighters clad in camouflage uniforms and brandishing a variety of small arms and multiple bandoliers of bullets and grenades and AK-47 magazines. In towns and villages he passes through, he sees commercial activity and the people appear supportive of ISIS. Despite the discouraging remarks of family and friends, the young man may feel that he has placed himself on track to become “true warrior for Islam.” He and the other deluded young men with whom ISIS has him traveling to a training camp likely congratulate each other over their accomplishment. The young man continues to receive encouragement from ISIS members during his training. However, after training is completed and there is no longer the need to seduce the young man, attention placed on the young man soon wanes. When the spotlight shined on him, there was a palpable sense of celebrity. Once the spotlight goes off, his sense of importance fades.

As a novice member of the group, he discovers an organizational structure where he is on the bottom. The young man, albeit trained to fight the ISIS way, is required to perform common tasks for strangers that he probably never would have been asked to perform at home. He may be directed to help gather the dead from battlefields under the guns of watchful opposing snipers. He may be ordered to help with the preparation meals for other fighters, serve tea or meals to leaders and commanders, or run errands. He may understand that in the Islamic Caliphate, all are ruled under Sharia law. He may have found that attractive before he joined ISIS. However, in Syria or Iraq, he finds himself placed under rules and regulations a bit different than he imagined. He learns that in the Islamic Caliphate, Sharia law is determined by whoever is in charge where one is and not a central authority. He becomes witness to atrocities against Syrian and Iraqi citizens, much of it being of a revolting, degenerate nature, meant to control and terrorize the inhabitants of towns and cities. He also discovers infractions of that individual’s vision of Sharia law can lead to summary execution, even for ISIS fighters. Indeed, fighters are killed by ISIS now and then partly with the goal of encouraging others to stay “in line.”

If a family has raised a young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he should turn away from it.

At the front, what the young man learned in the abstract from the internet does not survive his first day with war’s realities. He may find himself in ranks with other new recruits and regularly thrown into wasteful human wave attacks or diversionary moves to draw fire from opponents. Those moves would cover the more effective, more protected maneuvers of more experienced ISIS fighters. New recruits may be encouraged or ordered to execute a suicide bombing. Afraid to refuse, they meet their end. Setbacks, heavy losses, and wasteful actions, allow the young man to get a true picture of ISIS. They discover that war is not thrilling or glorious, but odious and terror filled. They may face the reality that ISIS is fighting people who only wish to protect their families and save their homes. Fictio credit veritati! (Fiction yields to the truth!)

Finding a Way Out of Extremist Groups: The Family Is the Beacon

There will be young men truly lacking judgment or overwhelmed by madness who will not be repulsed by ISIS’ actions. They will find pleasure in what is evil. They will be immune to the cries and lamentations of innocent civilians. Madness rejects truth. However, among those with sense, the truth of what ISIS is doing may be overwhelming. Soon enough, their self-imposed exile will become home sickness. The voice of rebellion loses the struggle with the voice of reason and truth. Thoughts of how he previously employed cunning in his actions, now creates a sense of shame. The association with ISIS becomes senseless. Despite all of the mistakes he has made, the best hope for him at this point is to somehow try to get away from ISIS before it is too late. Traveling back on the road he took to reach ISIS, there is little excitement in the young man. He may see the same weapons and know that they were just trophies, a sign of ISIS’s vanity, and were not used on the battlefield. The dead and wounded become more apparent, and he wonders how many of those he came with are still alive. The fighters in camouflage, brandishing weapons, cause him alarm for he cannot be certain if they represent some rabidly violent local ISIS authority and are seeking out an unwitting ISIS fighter of which they can use to display their power and their will. He now knows the people in the towns and villages are not supportive of ISIS. Rather, they are intimidated and enslaved by it. The young man’s own errors will become more pronounced as his conscience speaks to him. He may find some relief only when he holds himself accountable for any crimes he may have witnessed, been party to, or committed while with ISIS. The incidence of post traumatic stress among those unable to cope with their time in ISIS must be considerable. The young man’s family may bemoan over his initial failure to respond properly, to adhere with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundations that were instilled within him. Working with government authorities, the family can help set a new path for him. He can make amends for what he has done to them, others, and himself.

More often than not, families manage to defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family, and his responsibility to it, will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in the young man due to delusion, the love for family can find its way to the surface.

The Way Forward: Redemption, Defeating the Threat to Others

The story of a family worrying over the return of a young man who acts on thoughts of running off from home and involves himself with the loathsome, is not new. That story has been told for thousands of years. Two thousand years ago, it was best told as the Parable of the Prodigal Son in The New Testament. Leaving the warm embrace of his family for something bigger and better than what he knew, his adventure turned into tragedy as he found himself tending pigs and nearly challenging them for their slop. He was lucky enough to find his way back home to his loving father. With clarity, the young man amended his ways and found a better path in life. Similarly, young men who leave home to join ISIS soon find themselves among repugnant men who behave worse than pigs and find themselves immersed in an illegitimate fight in which they engage in murder and destruction and feel shame, disgrace, and self-loathing: slop.

The family unit is the most powerful and effective counter to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. Those groups should not be able to influence young Muslim men if their families have provided solid spiritual, and moral and ethical foundations for them. Their extremist views will be an annoyance more than anything else. Clearly, the majority of young men have rejected it. If a young man becomes radicalized, hope remains that the truth about Islam, instilled in him by his family during his youth, will overcome extremist lies. More often than not, families will defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family and his responsibility to it will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in a young man due to delusion, love for family can still find its way to the surface.

As mentioned, there will always be “hard cases”, madmen and the senseless, on which no counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist effort will have impact. There will be cases in which a father or brother of poor judgment may cause a young man to follow them into ISIS, into some other radical group, or to commit a terrorist act. However, the focus of Western efforts should be on the positively minded families. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and, mothers in particular, have the power to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts. A young Muslim man is most receptive to messages from them. Early in his life, they must make their opinions on groups such as ISIS known to him. There must be clarity in his thinking on those groups. Without the participation of families, counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist efforts will fail. Engaging in a long-term approach that includes families will ensure the effort to defeat Islamic extremism will become a generational affair. Dabit deushis quoque finem! (God will bring an end to this!)

Book Review: George William Rutler, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)

Above is what remains of the tomb of the prophet Jonah of the Old Testament and tthe mosque that held it, in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) destroyed it. Western governments are greatly interested in what is driving ISIS’ campaign of religious and ethnic bigotry, murder, and destruction in territory that it controls in Syria and Iraq. In Principalities and Powers, George William Rutler discusses the role evil played in World War II. His book may help Western leaders better understand ISIS and how to proceed against it.

The world’s response to Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) initially was reminiscent of the late 1930s when war came to Europe, and so many turned a blind eye as countries were conquered and countless innocent civilians killed in aerial bombardments, artillery fire, tank guns, and small arms. Lamentations heard from numerous innocent civilians, including children, in Iraq, Syria, and Libya by beheading, crucifixion, and forced exile from their ancient homelands are chillingly enough to remind not only of the fighting in World War II, but also of the cries heard from ghettos and concentration camps resulting from the vile anti-Semitism and crimes of German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party (Nazis). Anti-ISIS governments must acknowledge today what governments fighting the Nazis recognized. The fight against ISIS is a fight against evil.

In Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), George William Rutler illustrates that World War II, which began for mixed reasons and was fought on many fronts, can only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil.  Rutler explains that from his book, readers should gain an understanding of how “the same moral dilemmas of an old war, in their display of human dignity and the anatomy of cruelty, are background for the same realities in our own day.” Given the evil that ISIS poses, Principalities and Powers is an exceedingly relevant book to read right now.

Reared in the Episcopal tradition in New Jersey and New York, Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years, and the youngest Episcopal rector in the country when he headed the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. However, in 1979, he was received into the Catholic Church and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. A graduate of Dartmouth, Rutler also took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1988 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Thomas More College and Christendom College awarded him honorary doctorates. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese. Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Since 1988, EWTN has broadcasted Rutler’s television programs worldwide. Rutler has made documentary films in the US and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books, referred to by some as classics, on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Principalities and Powers is a history of the pivotal years of World War II: 1942–1943. In its discussion, Rutler, as expected, devotes attention to well-reported events of the period. Yet, the discussion of those events is used primarily to couch a recounting of the efforts made by a diverse set of individuals to confront the enemies of humanity. Admittedly, there is a predominant focus on the resistance of priests and officials of the Catholic Church to evil, including the papacy’s direct activities against atheistic totalitarian governments. However, that history helps to fill the book with loads of drama and intrigue. Many of the individuals mentioned are forgotten today and little was known of some even then. (The book’s “Index of Names” has 277 entries.) Several of them did not survive the war. Rutler explains that events of this period demonstrate human nature never changes. Heroes and cowards, and saints and sinners are revealed. To write Principalities and Powers, Rutler drew from a collection of actual letters, newspapers, and journals of the period. He skillfully used those resources to provide a profound discussion of events. (The information might well have been lost as most of these documents were printed on rationed paper and are deteriorating.) Previously, greatcharlie reviewed and highly recommended Rutler’s book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (Scepter, 2010). Rutler has amazed greatcharlie again with Principalities and Powers.

At the start of World War II, no one could be certain about its outcome. The situation was touch and go. Rutler notes that defenders of humanity had the good fortune of having the right leaders in place at the right time. Winston Churchill was not well-liked within circles of power. He was a harsh critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. At the outbreak of the war, King George VI appealed to Lord Edward Halifax, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and Viceroy of India before that, to take on the post of Prime Minister. However, after France fell, the invasion of the United Kingdom was viewed as certain. Art from the National Gallery was removed. The Royals’ bags were packed. Halifax would decline the prime minister’s post, perhaps concerned as many other leaders over how the Nazis would respond to them if the United Kingdom fell. Churchill, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, was available, was willing, and was begrudgingly selected. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another fortuitous placement. Roosevelt, known as a deal maker, aligned completely with the United Kingdom. Rutler explains that Roosevelt, as Churchill, viewed Hitler as truly evil. Hitler spelled his plans out in Mein Kampf and executed them. Despite the US public’s overwhelming support for neutrality and the Neutrality Act of 1939, the Lend-Lease Act was passed in the US Congress in March 1941. The US received leases for a chain of British islands guarding the Caribbean for the loan of US ships and other material support, committing the US to the United Kingdom’s defense. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941 affirming the solidarity between the two countries. Churchill was certainly uneasy with Roosevelt’s deals with the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, who he viewed as no-less evil than Hitler. He never reconciled with the division of postwar Europe and remained concerned over Soviet plans for global Communist domination.

From right to left are Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference in 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill jointly held the view that Hitler was evil and had to be approached as such. Churchill, however, was uneasy over deals eventually made with Stalin that established the postwar division of Europe.

Rutler notes that during its ascent, Nazism was essentially ignored by European governments for what it truly was, they paid a high price. The delusion of European leaders that Hitler could be managed, contained, or controlled, fostered an environment for the growth of Nazi power. From the very beginning, it was clear that the founding principles of Nazism were inimical to Western ideals. As Rutler explains, Nazism was more than a political movement, it was a religion, possessing its own ceremonies and rituals. The Nazis created their own pagan gods for their religion and used Norse pagan gods. Having created an artificial church, the Nazis sought to disband existing religions. Having prevented the people from believing in the true God, they submitted to a cult of personality. They worshipped Hitler. Hitler copied all of the trappings of fascism from Italian Duce and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, but Hitler’s abilities as an orator put him in a special class. While the great orator among the defender’s of civilization, Winston Churchill, spoke to convince people that they could do anything. Hitler spoke to convince people that he could do anything. The Judgment of the Nations was a work published in 1942 by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, but it began to get significant attention only in the early months of 1943. “The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship.” Dawson saw proof in world events that “evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” He believed what accounted for this was that things spiritual had been invaded by the secular state. Through that arose the totalitarian state, which imposed “total control of all human activities and all human energies, spiritual as well as physical . . and their direction to whatever ends are dictated by its interests, or rather the interests of the ruling party or clique.” From 1942 and 1943, it was clear that evil was rising all around Europe, seemingly transmitted by the Nazis as they gained territory and authority over Europe’s peoples. An incredible number of atrocities were being committed by governments across the continent. Villains that may be more memorable include Vichy French Prime Minister Pierre Laval, whose cruelty amazed even many Nazis. He reportedly stated: “Cardinals and bishops have intervened, but everyone is a master of his own trade. They handle religion. I handle government.”  Rutler indicates that evil even managed to consume some officials of the Catholic Church. A priest, Monsignor Josef Tiso, as puppet president of the Slovak State, paid the Germans to deport 60,000 Slovak Jews for extermination in Auschwitz, making Slovakia the only country to subsidize such deportations.  Pro-Ustashe Archbishop Sarić of Sarevejo penned an ode to the leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, Ante Pavelić. Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, of any European country. After the war he fled to Spain, while Pavelić was hidden by Jesuits near Naples and eventually settled in Argentina. In Yugoslavia, Bishop Alojzije Mišić of Mostar expressed horror at the massacres of Serbs with the complicity of Herzegovinian Franciscans residing in Široki Brijeg near Medjugorje. Bishop Mišić described hundreds of women and children and elderly men thrown alive into ravines at Surmanci.

In Belgium, the University of Louvain was purged of its Catholic faculty and Mass was forbidden. In Poland, the Germans suppressed all patriotic hymns, litanies, and prayers and took particular umbrage at the practice of hailing the Virgin Mary as “Queen of the Crown of Poland.” Dr. Mutz, Chief of the Department of Internal Administration, abolished all mentions of the Polish State, “which no longer exists.” May 3rd would no longer be celebrated as the day of the Beatae Mariae Virginis Patronae Rei Publicae Poloniae. The August 15thActio gratiarum pro Victoria super Bolshevicos 1920″ was forbidden, along with the thanksgiving for the victory at Chocim on October 10th and all services on November 11th commemorating the rebirth of the Polish Republic. Outside of Europe, in Syria, the Nationalist Socialist Party hailed Hitler as “Abu Ali” and the Young Egypt Party called him “Muhammed Haidar.”  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini visited Hitler, secured the deportation of 5,000 Jewish children to death camps, and obtained a promise from Hitler to liquidate the Jews of Palestine after a Nazi victory.

On the far left is Ante Pavelic, leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, making a Nazi salute in the presence of a prayerful Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac on the far right. Under Nazi influence in World War II, Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, in Europe.

The resistance to evil was strong. Included among the thousands of individuals who, as Rutler says, “attained virtue on a heroic scale,” is the pioneer of pan-Europeanism, the Austro-Hungarian Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi. The character Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca was based on him the Count. Although he was a professor at New York University in 1943, Hitler still loathed him as “everybody’s bastard.” He was, however, admired by Archduke Otto von Habsburg, Aristide Briand, Albert Einstein, Horace Mann, Sigmund Freud, and later by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle; he was an anti-Nazi and foe of anti-Semitism (like his Catholic father, who annually walked out of Good Friday services at the mention of the “perfidious Jews”).  Rutler mentions the Foreign Minister of Generalismo Francisco Franco’s Spain, Count Francisco Gomez-Jordana, who helped make his country a haven for Eastern European Jews, especially Sephardic Jews from Hungary. German Army Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a well-known conspirator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, is mentioned. However, Rutler also discusses the lesser-known assassination attempt against Hitler by German Army Colonel Rudolf von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence for German Army General Gunther von Kluge. Further, Rutler mentions the attempted protests by students at universities in the Netherlands against the Nazi revision of their syllabus, and protests by students at the Sorbonne and Grand Paris Ecoles. Rutler includes their letter to Vichy French Chief of State Philippe Petain which stated: “For more than two years, forgetting their rowdy traditions, the students of the University of Paris have abstained from demonstrations. But our silence has never implied acceptance of events of which we were the distressed observers. Above all, the brutal deportation of thousands of French workers has provoked our indignation.”

For Rutler, the strong role of the clergy in the resistance to tyranny was natural given their sense that the barbarity unleashed by the war was in reality a manifestation of evil and the presence of the devil. Rutler points to leaders such as the bishop of Berlin, Johann Konrad Maria Augustin Felix Graf von Preysing Lichtenegg-Moos, who stated when the Nazis had first come into power, “We have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools.” Bishop von Preysing exhorted in his Advent message of December 12, 1942, “Every departure from right and justice will sooner or later be broken against these foundations of God’s Dominion.” He explained the world’s present miseries were the result of human contempt for natural and divine law: “Resistance to God’s sovereign rule was a product largely of the eighteenth century—the century which proclaimed the primacy of human intelligence, the individual as an autonomous being and as his own sole judge, and which declared that all right was to be derived from this intelligence independently of God’s law.” The state had imposed itself as the very incarnation of God, replacing justice and right with power and profit. The Bishop’s appeal was stark: “My dear Brethren: ‘Repent,’ and change your mode of thinking. This is my appeal to you.” The pro-Nazi newspaper Vooruit of Ghent rued the pastoral letter of Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, who opposed forced labor. At the same time, the primate of Hungary, Jusztinian Cardinal Seredi, told representatives of the Hungarian Catholic press that “all States have equal sovereignty” and so “the Hungarian nation has a birthright to claim—freedom, autonomy, and national independence.” Reverend R. H. W. Regout, professor of international law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, died at the age of 46 in Dachau, where he and three other professors had been sent shortly after the occupation of the Netherlands. The “priest block” in that concentration camp held 2,579 priests over the war years, 1,785 of them Polish, more than a thousand of whom perished there. By February1943, 34 Italian chaplains had been killed in active service.

On April 19, 1943, the Swedish Svenska Dagbladet printed a letter from the archbishop of Zagreb, Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, to the Italian ambassador to the Croatian puppet state. The Italians had been exploiting conflicts between Croats and Serbs to make them seem ideological rather than ethnic: “I must protest energetically against the incredible atrocities committed by Italian troops against the defenceless populations in the districts of Krasic, Vidovina and Brovac, where several villages have been burnt down. . . . Even if some Communists should have succeeded in taking refuge there, I can vouch that there were not, and are not now, any Communists among the village population.”

Pope Pius XII ( center) meets with members of what Rutler calls the forces of “great good,” in this case the Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, following the liberation of Rome in June 1944. Pius XII refrained from directly rebuffing Hitler and Mussolini and kept channels open to their regimes. Yet, he understood that Hitler, in particular, represented true evil.   While remaining neutral, he did as much as he could to mitigate suffering in World War II.

In France, the activities of the Catholic Church against the Nazis were so significant that the editor of a Protestant French newspaper wrote: “The militant Catholics in our country have taken a place which is important and, we do not fear to say, preponderant, at the head of the movement of resistance in which, very often, they have taken the initiative, and of which they remain the inspiration.”   The 81-year-old Auxiliary Bishop of Paris, Emanuele-Anatole-Raphael Chaptal de Chanteloupe wore a Star of David in protest again the deportation of Jews, and soon was buried wearing it. The collaborationist Vichy radio mocked Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons for hiding Jews and resistance fighters: he was “an ex-lawyer who late in life became an archbishop more as a result of the omnipotent grace of the House of Rothschild than to the laws of Holy Mother Church.”  When German officials ordered the Jews of Beauvais to register at the municipal headquarters, Bishop Felix Roeder claimed a distant Jewish antecedent and was the first to register, processing through the street in full pontifical vestments, and preceded by an acolyte carrying the Cross.

Rutler notes that in the war’s distress, increasing appeals were being made to the Pope for help and advocacy. L’Osservatore Romano published an article on the history of papal diplomatic prerogatives by General Francois de Castelnau, president of the French Federation National Catholique. He pointed to the irony by which the European powers in the 19th century had threatened to exclude the Pope from their deliberations, while turning to him in crises. Seemingly debilitated by the loss of the papal states in 1870, the papacy ironically took on a new prestige when its loss of temporal power gave it a grander kind of neutrality. In 1885, Bismarck, only ten years removed from the Kulturkampf, had asked the Pope to arbitrate between two nations, Spain and Germany, for the first time in three centuries. In 1890, the Pope was asked to mediate between Great Britain and Portugal a matter of navigation on the Zambesi. That same year, US President Grover Cleveland desired a papal arbitration between Venezuela and Great Britain to define the frontier between Venezuela and Guyana. Five years later Cleveland asked Pope Leo XIII to do the same for Haiti and Santo Domingo.   However, the Nazis had contempt for the appeal to neutrality, and the pontiff’s ability to intervene on issues was more constrained. In February 1942, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1921 to 1936), Dr. Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, published a statement saying that he had appealed to the Pope to intervene with the combatant powers on behalf of European Jewry. Without out noting specifics, the Holy See replied that “the Pope is doing everything in his power on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe.”  It was telling that Rabbi Herzog, who remained as Chief Rabbi until 1959, would eventually remark about the Pius XII, “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.”

Pius XII’s message on the Vatican radio on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1942, broadcast in German, said: “God’s ship is destined to reach port safely. She will not sink, for Christ is the helmsman and the gates of hell, the onslaught of the wildest waves and of the spiritual U-boat action (“Geistige U-boot Arbeit”) of godless neo-paganism will not harm her… For while paganism cannot build up, still less can neo-paganism, which lacks even that nobility of mind and true humanity which was found in the old pagans.” When Christmas came in 1942, The New York Times said Pius XII “is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

There is much more in Principalities and Powers. After starting it, the book is hard to put down.

Causa latet, vis est notissima! (The cause is hidden, but its force is very well known!) Rutler views the test of character in the struggles of the world’s greatest war as a litmus for how the present generation should and should not behave in the face of challenges. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott well-described ISIS as a “death cult,” but the imbalanced, barbaric behavior of ISIS has flummoxed Western governments wanting to categorize the organization and appropriately respond to it. As Rutler shows in Principalities and Powers, the starting point for understanding ISIS or any similar organization that might arise is its main characteristic, which is evil. Principalities and Powers may support the development of a better understanding of ISIS, what it represents, and the devising of new approaches to defeat it. As it is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide, we enthusiastically recommend Principalities and Powers to our readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark