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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO: Meanwhile, Latvia Shapes Its Own Fate

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Latvian National Guard troops in small unit training (above). Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members, Estonia and Lithuania, to deter or fight Russia and Belarus. A huge military build-up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO has been a necessary step taken by leaders in Riga. However, they are also using diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with Minsk.

According to a December 27, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO,” US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Amy Klobuchar arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on December 27th to reassure Baltic countries that the US remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance. At the time, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had expressed concern that the new US President-elect Donald Trump might not uphold the longstanding US commitment to their defense from the Russian Federation and its military partner, Belarus. That notion was predicated on statements Trump made during the election campaign. At a December 27th news conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, McCain remarked, “I am convinced and certain that our relations, and the American relationship with NATO, will remain the same.”  He further stated, “Our relationship is more important than perhaps it’s been in a long time,” and said he would support a permanent US troop presence, not just a rotation. About 5,000 US troops have rotated through Estonia since April 2014. Other stops on the Senators’ trip were Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) and a former Latvian ambassador to the US was interviewed by phone for the New York Times article. Kalnins noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans had tried to reassure the Baltic States for months that US policy toward European security would not change. Kalnins expressed optimism, saying “Our hope is that his administration will come around to backing the ongoing policy toward NATO and the Baltics.” Interestingly, he went on to state, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the fate of Ukraine.” Since the time of the Senators visit, Trump has sought to ameliorate his comments on NATO by saying in an interview with The Times of London and Bild that the alliance “is very important to me.” Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit. (Who chases two rabbits, catches neither.)

Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members in the Baltics to deter or fight Russia and its allies. Initiating a military build up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO, with urgency and diligence was a necessary and admirable course for the leadership in Riga to take. Since 2014, Latvia has one of the fastest growing defense budgets in the world. That growth will be sustained until 2018 and will be well over 2 percent GDP by then. Defense is a crucial issue for Latvia, however, there are other dimensions country of great importance to Latvians such as the economy. It problems require significant attention, too! The West has engaged in efforts to ensure Latvia received foreign economic assistance. It has stemmed some problem. Still, that help has essentially been a bromide for Latvia’s economic woes. Worse, it may have slowed Latvia on the road to self-directed stability. Some officials in Riga have developed a dependency on that aid, making plans around it, but not all have.

In addition to its own initiative, Latvia has been driven by the West’s friendly but insistent voice to devote so much attention, energy, and money to defense. As a result, its economy has become an ancillary story. The leadership in Riga is undoubtedly appreciative of the West’s assistance, but paramount to them, much as the leaders in any national capital, is maintaining their country’s solvency and unity. Not to be impolitic, but for Western countries working with Latvia, the true priority is their own interests. It is possible that in private, leaders in Riga might admit that they sense themselves as being confined on a path of succumbing to obligations stemming from its membership in regional military alliances. From a more extreme perspective, some leaders in Riga may want to overcome a nagging sense that Latvia has become Western powers’ “ball to play with.” Concerns among the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors over Western perceptions of them seemed to be manifested by their recent complaints over the use of the term “former Soviet republics” in the media to describe them. Riga is entitled to set its own national priorities, and with regard to security, devise its own military plans and diplomatic ones to quell both potential and real threats. That certainly does not mean leaders in Riga might have some interest in breaking away from any of its security arrangements. However, they apparently view it as reasonable to use diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, in tandem with their military build-up. Neither its Baltic neighbors nor other NATO members could truly welcome a decision by Latvia to take such an independent diplomatic tack. Yet, success would allow Riga to focus more on Latvia’s other problems and become less absorbed by defense. Riga has recently made diplomatic moves of some significance with Minsk and with Moscow. Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that things are difficult.)

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The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Although Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign countries, for decades they have maintained cooperative arrangements. They are linked today. Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its Baltic neighbors Yet, also of great importance to Latvians are economic woes besetting their country.

Latvia in Brief

The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Its coastline to the west on the Baltic Sea is 531 km and forms a maritime border with Sweden. Latvia has approximately 1,957,200 inhabitants and a total territory of 64,589 km2.  Latvia was originally established as a democratic parliamentary republic in 1918 on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted during World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic for fifty years. The “Singing Revolution” that started in 1987 called for the Baltic States emancipation from Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on 21 August 1991. In Latvia, the central government in Riga, the capital, is supreme, and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated to them by the Central government. There are 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities.  Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is the country’s official language. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. A demographic profile of Latvia provided by Index Mundi indicates Latvians comprise 61.1 percent of the population. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation,  ethnic Russians comprise 26.2 percent of the population, some of whom are non-citizens. Belarusians make up 3.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians represent 2.3 percent,   represent 2.2 percent, and Lithuanians are 1.3 percent. Remaining groups represent 3.4 percent of the population. Until World War II, Latvia had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Latvia is a member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, Organization Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Baltic Sea States, Nordic Baltic Cooperation, Nordic Investment Bank. For 2014, Latvia is listed 46th on the Human Development Index and as a high income country as of January 1, 2017.

At the Foundation of Baltic Unity

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are often looked upon in the West as a matched set of three countries. To an extent, they are! Although each established its sovereignty separately, the three entered into a cooperative arrangement known as the trilateral Treaty on Concord and Cooperation, signed in Geneva on September 12, 1934. Turbulent events beginning at the start of World War II had all three Baltic States initially sucked into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and finally re-occupied and reincorporated as Soviet republics. The West continued to recognize the sovereignty of the three countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States signed the Declaration on Unity and Cooperation on May 12, 1990 in Tallinn, restoring cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pursuant to the Geneva Treaty, the Baltic Council was established in 1990. The Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM), formed at the meeting of Baltic Prime Ministers in Tallinn on June 13, 1994, established an institution of trilateral intergovernmental cooperation. There was also an Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental cooperation signed in Tallinn on the same day. These agreements are at the foundation of what is known as Baltic unity.  When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO, the BCM was reformed and adjusted to the changed environment. It still operates under the guidance of the Prime Ministers’ Council, and the Cooperation Council, which comprises the ministers of foreign affairs, and coordinates the activity of the Committees of Senior Officials (CSO). In accord with the Terms of Reference, the Committees of Senior Officials act in five areas of cooperation at the expert level. If necessary, Task Forces are established by the Prime Ministers’ Council. The Prime Ministers’ Council determines specific task to be performed by a Task Force within time parameters. The Secretariat arranges the activities of the BCM. The Secretariat is staffed by officers of the foreign ministries of the three Baltic States responsible for the countries cooperation. Under the initiative of the chairmanship of the BCM, the Secretariat does the preparatory work for the meetings of the Prime Ministers’ Council and Cooperation Council. The chairmanship starts at the beginning of every calendar year. The country with the chairmanship directs work done on all levels of cooperation. Perhaps 2016 was the best year for Latvia to engage in its daring and optimistic diplomacy with Belarus and Russia. Latvia held the BCM chairmanship and presided over the Baltic Assembly (BA).

The BA is an international organization established on November 8, 1991 aimed at promoting cooperation between the Baltic States’ parliaments. The BA works under a statute entered into force on October 31, 1993. The Protocol amending the Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental Cooperation was signed on November 28, 2003 in Vilnius. The Baltic Council is an annual joint meeting held by the BCM and the BA. This meeting includes a session of the BA, a meeting between the Presidium of the BA and Cooperation Council of the BCM, and a meeting of the Cooperation Council of the BCM.  A report by the Chairman of the Cooperation Council to the BA session must be prepared on: cooperation between the Baltic States in the previous year; activities related to the resolutions adopted by the BA during the current year; and, plans for future cooperation. Although Latvia was open enough to engage in diplomatic efforts with Belarus and Russia while at the helm of the BCM and BA, its approach to those countries did not lead Estonia and Lithuania to take similar action. There was certainly no abatement of Estonia and Lithuania’s fears over Russian and Belarusian actions and intentions.

Latvia’s Poor Economy – A Special Problem

Albeit as a result of the precarious economic situation it has faced for nearly a decade, Latvia, to make use of a phrase from the Bundesliga, carries the red lantern among the Baltic States. From 1999 to 2007, Latvia had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. However, the Latvian economy entered a phase of fiscal contraction during the second half of 2008 after an extended period of credit-based speculation and unrealistic appreciation in real estate values. Growth was mainly driven by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were at some points growing by approximately 5 percent a month, were long perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low-value goods and raw materials. Ignoring recommendations from the IMF and others to break their peg to the euro and devalue the currency, the Latvians instead embarked on a brutal programme of “internal devaluation,” improving competitiveness by slashing wages and prices. After losing access to capital markets, and accepting a $10.5 billion bail-out from the IMF and the EU, the government implemented an austerity plan worth 17 percent of GDP over four years. Problems were exacerbated by the global economic crisis, shortage of credit and huge money resources used for the bailout of Parex bank. In 2008, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, was nationalized. In the end, Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF for the bank’s bail out. The Latvian economy fell 18 percent in the first three months of 2009, the biggest fall in the EU.  The unemployment rate in Latvia rose sharply in this period from a low of 5.4 percent in November 2007 to over 22 percent. In April 2010, Latvia had the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at 22.5 percent. In July 2012, the IMF concluded that the First Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with the Republic of Latvia, announcing that Latvia’s economy was recovering strongly since 2010, following the deep downturn in 2008–09. However, while some in the West define Latvia as a success, others call it the best example of an apparent Western tendency to cloak disaster with positive statements. Net economic growth in Latvia had been nonexistent since 2006. Reportedly, the collapse was severe enough that Latvia still had not returned it to its pre-crisis peak of activity.  Latvia should have labeled a catastrophe. Even now, unemployment is around 9.5 percent, which is still high and real wages are about 5 percent smaller than they were back in 2007. Even more alarming for the country’s long-term economic prospects is loss of Latvia’s loss of more than 300,000 people since 2000. Its population has dropped from around 2.3 million to about 2 million. Many Latvians were prompted to seek out better opportunities in the rest of the EU due to the financial crisis.

In 2014 the GDP of Latvia was $31.3 billion and its GDP per capita was $23,500. Latvia is the 78th largest export economy in the world and the 34th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Records indicate Latvia increased exports at an annualized rate of 12.3 percent, from $7.98 billion in 2009 to $14.3 billion in 2014. Imports stood at $17.2 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $2.93 billion. The top exports of Latvia are Refined Petroleum ($1.22 billion), Sawn Wood ($730 million), Crude Petroleum ($644 million), Hard Liquor ($556 million) and Broadcasting Equipment ($394 million), using the 1992 revision of the HS (Harmonized System) classification. Its top imports are Refined Petroleum ($2 billion), Broadcasting Equipment ($666 million), Petroleum Gas ($600 million), Cars ($599 million) and Packaged Medicaments ($519 million). The top export destinations of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.31 billion), Russia ($1.3 billion), Estonia ($938 million), Belarus ($854 million) and Germany ($851 million). The top import origins are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion). The top import origins of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion).

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Most transit traffic in Latvia uses the ports of Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils (above). Half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. In addition to road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via a system of two pipelines. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Ventspils and Riga as of 2018. Its chief executive officer said by 2018 Russia’s cargo flow to the Baltic States will be zero.

Latvia’s transport sector is around 14 percent of GDP. Transit between Russia and Belarus is considerable. Three biggest ports of Latvia are located in Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils. Most transit traffic uses them and half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. Ventspils is one of the busiest ports in the Baltic States. Along with its road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via system of two pipelines from Polotsk, Belarus. Latvia operates Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe and the only one in the Baltic States. However, the future of Latvia’s transport and energy sectors appears uncertain. Riga has sought to meet EU regulations and reduce its dependence on energy supplies from Russia. However, that process has created the opportunity for Russia to essentially pull the rug from under Latvia. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Latvia’s ports of Ventspils and Riga as of 2018, and redirect volumes to the Russian Baltic Sea ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk and the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. During a meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, on September 13, 2015, Transneft’s chief executive officer, Nikolai Tokarev, said, “We will re-orient the cargo turnover from the Baltic ports of Ventspils, Riga to our Baltic ports–of Ust-Luga and Primorsk–as well as to Novorossiisk.” Tokarev predicted turnover at Latvia’s ports would shrink to 5 million metric tons (mt) in 2016 from 9 million mt in 2015. He further stated “By 2018 we will reduce this cargo flow to the Baltic states to zero. We will fill up our ports, because there is capacity surplus.” Transneft plans to convert some of the pipeline capacity not being used for crude to transport oil products to Primorsk and Novorossiisk.

Currently, a former crude pipeline, the Yaroslav-Kirishi 2, is being converted to carry diesel to Primorsk and is due to be operational in October. The converted pipeline, which will run along the already functioning Kstovo-Primorsk trunk, will allow Transneft to expand the capacity of the so-called North, or Sever, diesel pipeline running to the Baltic port of Primorsk to 25 million mt per year from November 2017, earlier than the previously planned 2020. Russia exports only diesel via pipeline, with currently two pipelines shipping Euro 5, or 10 parts per million (ppm) max sulfur diesel, to the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ventspils. Gasoil continues to be shipped by rail, but Baltic ports have become an outlet for a large proportion of all ultra low sulfur diesel supply to Northwest Europe. Last October, the pipeline to Ventspils fully switched to 10 ppm diesel flows. Russian products flows through the Baltic ports – Sillamae, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, had all been shrinking. Russia halted crude exports via Ventspils more than a decade ago, but continued to ship gasoil and subsequently ULSD via the pipeline to the Latvian port. However, transshipment volumes through Ventspils Nafta Terminals on the Baltic Sea have also been dwindling. Ventspils, which is majority owned by trader Vitol, handled 4.29 million mt of oil products in the first half of the year, down 27.3 percent from a year earlier. Russian pipeline volumes continued their downward trend in the first half of 2016, with LatRosTrans transporting 2.4 million mt, down from 2.98 million mt in the first half of 2015. The terminal also handles products delivered by rail from Russia and Belarus. According to traders, it is now being filled with ultra low sulfur diesel.

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Latvia’s Incukalns underground gas storage facility (above) is one the largest in Europe. It was built during the Soviet era to meet the region’s needs, including northwestern Russia. However, Incukalns entered th 2016-2017 winter season one-third empty. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 1.6 bcm in 2015 and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the 2016 injection season, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since 2000. The future of Latvia’s energy sector is uncertain.

Latvia’s gas utility, Latvijas Gaze is set to transfer part of its assets – including one of Europe’s largest underground gas storage facilities, Incukalns – to Latvia’s future gas grid and storage operator Conexus Baltic Grid, ahead of a planned market liberalisation in April 2017. The current owners of Latvijas Gaze – Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Uniper and Latvia’s Itera Latvija – which have a combined stake of slightly over 68 percent, will have to divest shares in Conexus by the end of 2017 due to legal requirements. Latvijas Gaze’s restructuring is a part of wider gas market reforms approved by the Latvian parliament in February 2016 in an effort to meet EU regulations. and reduce dependence on energy supplies from Russia. The European infrastructure fund Marguerite, which holds a 28.97 percent stake in Latvijas Gaze, plans to stay in Conexus after the restructuring, it told Reuters in an email. The fund declined to say whether it might want to increase its stake in Conexus. The storage facility, built during the Soviet era to meet the needs of the wider region, including northwestern Russia, is entering this winter season one-third empty. Gazprom and Estonian utility Eesti Gaas have not injected any new gas at Incukalns in 2016. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic meters (bcm) from 1.6 bcm year ago and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the injection season, which runs from April until October, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since at least 2000. This includes 0.2 bcm of gas Gazprom injected for Russia’s needs during the previous year. Estonian customers told Latvijas Gaze they could meet their needs by direct imports from Russia, while Gazprom said it also had no need to store more gas. While the drop in injections coincides with the Latvian parliament’s decision to end Gazprom’s supply monopoly, both Latvian officials and the Russian supplier said the reasons were economic. Russia has spare capacity to deliver gas to its St Petersburg region, previously also supplied from the Latvian storage facility, as it prepares to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Ivars Scerbickis, head of Incukalns gas storage, said “Historically, Incukalns’ role has been indisputable in the region.” He went on to state, “Now it’s a challenge for us to keep it the same.”  Latvian officials hope that Gazprom will use Incukalns after market liberalisation to ensure security of supplies, especially during cold winters when demand spikes. Latvia may be hoping to acquire Finland and Poland as new customer when new gas links are built from Estonia and Lithuania by around 2020. Ibit, ibIt eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit. (The one who loses his money belt will go where you wish.)

Latvia: A Russian Military Target

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin finds causality for the misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe in actions taken 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Some Western analysts conclude Russia’s centuries old habit of devouring bordering countries puts Latvia and it Baltic neighbors at risk. Others say Putin seeks hegemony over them due to his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin says NATO guaranteed Russia that it would “not expand eastward” and it is doing so knowing it “will lead to Russia’s isolation.”

However, some Russia experts do not believe that Putin is driven by the failure of the West to honor its post-Cold War commitments to Russia. Hillary Appel of Claremont McKenna College asserts that Russia has a centuries old habit of devouring for bordering countries as the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania  as a means of ensuring its physical control of their territory.  She explains that was Russia built its empire that way. It was a stratagem quite different from that of Britain and France, whose empires were built upon the conquest of distant, unconnected territories on other continents. Russia’s approach left it the largest country in the world geographically, even after the republics of its Soviet empire sought independence. Appel proffers that after ascending to power, Putin in words and deeds as both Prime minister and president refused to accept the further dissolution of Russian controlled territory, and through what she describes as tremendous brutality and violence in Chechnya, thwarting Chechen designs for independence.

Paul Miller of the University of Texas, explains that Putin is not driven by cold calculations of rational self-interest, because no human is. Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin and his advisers are not mere nationalist. Miller believes Putin and his advisers may be driven by “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism.” As part of that narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith. Miller believes that a truly rational Russia would not see NATO and EU expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. If Putin and his advisers see the world through the prism of Russian religious nationalism, Miller states, “the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.” Indeed, to them, Miller proffers, “NATO is not the benign guarantor of liberal order in Europe, but the hostile agent of the degenerate West and the primary obstacle to Russian greatness.” To that extent, Putin’s grand strategy, Miller says, requires breaking NATO and making the Article V mutual security guarantee meaningless.Putin has already succeeded in eroding NATO’s credibility. His last two targets, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term as Miller asserts no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia.

The Baltic States are NATO Members. Due to that, Miller explains that Putin would unlikely send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border as even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Miller believes Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Miller outlined what might be observed as follows:  1) Perhaps many among the 25 percent of Latvians or Estonians who are ethnically Russian will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, and asking for “international protection;” 2) A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear; 3) A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. 4) A low-grade insurgency may emerge. 4) Russia will block all UN Security Council resolutions, but will offer its unilateral services as a peacekeeper; 5) The North Atlantic Council will meet. 6) Poland will lead the effort to invoke Article V, declare the Baltics under Russian attack, and rally collective defense against Russian aggression. 7) The Germans and French will fiercely resist. Everyone will look to the US to see which way the alliance leader tilts. 8) If the Alliance does not invoke Article V, NATO’s mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless. 9) No NATO Member will put any faith in the treaty to guarantee it’s own defense against Russia in the future. Some Eastern European countries may choose to join up with Russia. 10) Others, starting with Poland, will begin arming to the teeth.

In January 2016, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of a new Baltic command, which would have 60,000 troops—three motor rifle divisions—stationed near the western region of Russia, bordering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, Russia is expanding its Baltic Fleet and has deployed a new generation of surface-to-air missiles into the Kaliningrad region, bordering on Poland and Lithuania. Kaliber missiles can launch nuclear warheads. The Russian warships Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol were recently added to the Baltic Fleet, armed with long-range, new-generation cruise missiles. Russia even held four days of civil defense drills, involving 40 million Russian citizens, underscoring the country’s readiness for war. The most recent maneuvers by the Baltic Fleet involved a simulated attack on US warships in the Sea.

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Many in the Baltics feel they will fall prey to the same territorial ambitions Russia displayed in Crimea in 2014. Under a new State Defense Concept, Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It earmarked 20 percent of the budget for purchasing new equipment.  It also states the Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men to include: 6,500 from the professional ranks; 8,000 from the National Guard troops; and, 3,000 from the reserves.

Latvia’s Response: 2016 State Defense Concept

Many in the Baltic States feel they will be next to fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. When one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. At the core of Latvia’s national security concerns is the threat from Russia. Factors influencing that perspective include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe. Western analysts conclude the Russia’s deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad province between Poland and Lithuania underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West. Much as all other European countries, Latvia must also devote new attention to the continuing encroachment of the ISIS threat from the Middle East. The developing security environment has driven Latvia to give greater attention to security policy and the strengthening of defense capabilities on the national and international levels. Membership in NATO and the EU play a decisive role in Latvia’s security policy, and Latvia is actively participating in these organizations as well as bilaterally with its allies in order to bolster its own security and the security of its region. In this regard, Riga accepts that it is in Latvia’s national interest to establish arrangements for a sustained NATO military presence on Latvian territory that in turn bolster both the deterrent posture and real defense of the alliance against the Russian threat. Of equal  importance is increasing the capabilities of NATO rapid reaction forces to better enable them to assist all member states in an emergency. Latvia welcomed the increase in the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops which are ready to respond in a few days’ time. Some 5,000 troops of the NRF serve in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which is ready respond to any Russian moves on Europe’s eastern front within hours. Latvia is one of six NATO members in which NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been established. In an emergency, these units would be instrumental in facilitating the rapid deployment of military combat forces, ensuring that they could operate effectively on Latvia’s land and sea and in the air. Additionally, the NFIUs allow regional NATO Members to implement a coordinated program for military exercises.

In addition to conventional attack, Latvia, much as Paul Miller prognosticated, might be facing foreign efforts at subversion and insurgency, characteristic of hybrid warfare. Reportedly, Russia, using hybrid warfare, has sought to destabilize governments and societies by direct means and other elements as well. Those other elements may include cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, the application of coercion ranging from economic pressure to the leverage using energy supplies as an instrument, the use of disguised military personnel, and the use of terrorists and armed groups as proxies for various types of attacks. Plans for Latvia’s response to both the conventional and hybrid attacks have been coalesced in a new national security strategy, the 2016 State Defense Concept. The Concept specifies eight major challenges for Latvia’s security and measures to prevent them: external challenges, foreign intelligence and special services, military threats, threats to social unity, threats to information community, economic challenges, international terrorism and cyber-terrorism. Latvia’s priorities are to reinforce its borders, to improve its refugee policy and to prevent radicalization risks. To thwart threats posed by foreign intelligence and special services, the Concept indicated that Latvia should develop its national security and counterespionage services and should undertake preventive policies. The country should also develop public mass media, reduce the influence of Russian mass media specifically, control foreign investment, and ensure stable energy supplies. Since hybrid warfare can be used independently or in tandem with conventional military attacks, Latvia actively contributes to NATO and EU efforts to seek the most effective solutions to counter hybrid threats, including in the information space.

Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018, according to the Concept. The strategy further states that the Latvian Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men which will include 6,500 from the professional ranks, 8,000 from the National Guard troops and 3,000 from the reserves. Moreover, 20 percent of the defense budget will be earmarked for the purchase of new equipment. Priorities concerning the armed forces included the strengthening the operational capability of the Latvian Armed Forces, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Finally, the document emphasizes the integration and regional cooperation of the three Baltic States’ militaries. On June 16, 2016, Latvia’s Saeima approved the government’s national security strategy.

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A Latvian soldier and Estonian soldier perform check their equipment (above). The Latvian Armed Forces’ priorities include bolstering its operational capabilities, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Emphasis is also being placed on the integration and regional cooperation of the Baltic States’ militaries.

NATO’s Commitments to Latvia and Its Baltic Neighbors

At the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government from July 8 to July 9 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, it was agreed that combat forces would be deployed into the three Baltic States and Poland. That force will consist of seven combat brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, backed up by air power and land fire. In February, a US battalion task force of about 900 soldiers from Viselk, Germany, accompanied by smaller United Kingdom and Romanian units, will be deployed to Orzysk, Poland. That force will be backed by United Kingdom Typhoon fighter jets, which will begin patrols over the Black Sea. They will be joined in Europe later by a brigade combat team from Fort Carson, Colorado equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Drum, New York.  All of the US troops are scheduled to be in place by June 2017. The United Kingdom will send a battalion of 800 troops to Estonia. It will be supported by French and Danish troops starting from May 2017. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia, who will joined by 140 troops from Italy. Germany has promised to send between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, along with forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg. The deployment will cost NATO Member States $2.7 billion a year. The US Navy has deployed four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with AEGIS missile defense systems to Rota, Spain. A separate land-based AEGIS system is being constructed in Romania on the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and Eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance remarked about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.” He further explained, “You can use the term ‘tripwire’ as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?” Commenting about the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following a visit to the Baltic States in 2016, the commander of the US Special Operations Command, US Army General Raymond Thomas stated, “They’re scared to death of Russia.” He further stated, “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.” Hannibal ad portas! (Hannibal is at the gates!)

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, United Kingdom General Sir Richard Shirreff, wrote a CNN assessment October 21, 2016, warned that if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic States, it means war with NATO. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004 and are therefore protected under Article V of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. A Russian attack on the Baltic States puts the US at war with Russia—meaning nuclear war, because Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Shirreff stated pointedly, “And don’t think Russia would limit itself to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States.”

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Canadian Army troops (above). At the 2016 Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, it was agreed that NATO would deploy combat forces into the three Baltic States and Poland. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia. They will be joined by 140 Italian troops. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.”

Baltic Air Policing – “Latvia’s Air Power”

After the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the immediate commitment of alliance its three new members was nonstop policing of their airspace. Initially, Baltic Air Policing was conducted by NATO Member States on a three-month rotation from Lithuania’s First Air Force Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai, and starting 2014 at the Ämari Air Base in Harju County, Estonia. Starting with the Turkish deployment, rotations changed to a four-month basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel. However, all member nations contribute in some form to the NATO Air policing, be it through the use of national aerial surveillance systems, air traffic management, interceptor aircraft or other air defence measures. NATO Air Policing requires making an Air Surveillance and Control System, an Air Command and Control structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) aircraft continuously available.

Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. However, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; in 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, says that the number of intercepts has increased since 2014 because Russia is flying more aircraft in Baltic airspace, but also because the alliance has increased its air policing capabilities. The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace, although over the last 12 months Estonia has reported at least six airspace violations by Russian jets. Moscow has denied the accusations. Dupont told Newsweek, “One of NATO’s roles is to preserve the integrity of the Allies’ airspace,” He further stated, “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

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Two German Typhoon fighters performing Baltic Air Policing duties (above). When the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the alliance’s first visible commitment to them was policing their airspace. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, stated: “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

In War as I Knew It, US Army General George Patton explained, “We should not plan and then try to make circumstances fit those plans. Instead we should make plans to fit the circumstances.” Despite the Baltic Air Policing and beefed-up ground deployments opposites Russian forces in the Baltics and elsewhere, there are many Western defense analysts who believe that the NATO response is too weak, and, as the result, is an invitation for Russia to take aggressive action. Upon hearing that, some officials in Riga might begin to consider what can really been gained by its robust military build-up. In his assessment for CNN, Shirreff called for a much larger NATO deployment into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, one that would represent a credible deterrent, rather than a token force that could be over-run within hours. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti has agreed with Shirreff, but has not specified the force size and composition required to provide a credible deterrent.

A RAND Corporation study prepared for US Department of Defense centered on several tabletop war games, based on the Russian deployments into the Crimea. The war games were played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces being deployed to the Baltics, were small. Those forces lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. It indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. According to the study, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. The RAND study concluded that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, the RAND study indicated that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.” Esse quam videri. (To be rather than to seem.)

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A RAND study assessed that Russian Federation forces could smash through NATO defenses and drive on targets such as Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours, leaving the US and NATO Allies with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy.

Has Latvia Found a Self-Directed Path?

Animus in consulendo liber. (Free spirit to decide.) When he told the New York Times, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics,” Kalnins revealed much. Latvia serves as an element of what is essentially a militarized buffer between the West and possible aggression from the east.  However, Riga may want to dial down from the hardline stance it has been taking and no longer be almost singularly engrossed in military affairs. Regarding diplomacy, the most important mission of Latvian diplomats has been creating arrangements for a long-term NATO military presence in Latvia as a defense against any threats to its territory and bolster alliance defenses from the east as well. Apparently, Latvia’s leaders would like to use diplomacy to enhance established bilateral ties with Belarus and Russia. Before diplomatic efforts of this type actually began with Belarus, and to some degree with Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense publicly indicated that it would not exclude engaging in dialogue in order to promote trust between two countries.  Moreover, Riga seemed to hope delicate and simple talks with Belarus and Russia could have some palliative effect and convince them that Latvia and the other Baltic States pose no threat to their interests. Riga would certainly like for them to be assured that Latvia would not provide an prospective avenue upon which the West would invade Russia. An invasion from its direction was among attacks prognosticated by the Russian Federation General Staff in their Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation.

During an official visit to Latvia by the Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov on December 5 to December 6, 2016, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation. Prior to the meeting, Latvian Defense Ministry announced that the text of the agreement that involved Latvia and Belarus would not be released, a standard practice. However, it was also indicated before the meeting that the agreement would concern defense cooperation between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Belarus Ministry of Defense. The goal would be to promote cooperation between both countries in the fields of international security and defense policy, airspace surveillance, arms control, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program activities, military medicine, as well as environmental protection, cultural and sports activities in the armed forces. Ravkov’s visit also included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. The parties discussed a wide range of issues, including bilateral military cooperation. The Belarusian delegation also visited a school in the city of Cesis that trains instructors for the National Armed Forces of Latvia. While the two countries have enjoyed what the Latvian Defense Ministry described as “fruitful cooperation” since 2004, to include a series of exchange visits and inspections taking place on both sides of the border, the signing of the agreement represents the creation of a new dimension of that relationship.

Wary officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could poach Latvia from the West’s reserve. However, there is no apparent leverage Belarus could use to pry Latvia from the BCM, EU, NATO, or any other Western based organizations. There should also be little fear that Latvia officials and experts might be contaminated from contact with their Belarusian counterparts. The willingness of Belarus to talk is more likely part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to intensify fence mending efforts with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Suspicious officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could pry from the West’s hand. However, it may be part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to mend fences with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].”

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From December 5 to December 6, 2016, Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov made an official visit to Latvia. The visit included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. Before Ravkov left, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation.

Regarding Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” The original invitation for talks came from Russia.  In it, Latvian officials to go to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent it to Latvia via its military attache in Riga on August 2016. Riga responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. In a statement issued on November 22, 2016, the Latvian Ministry of Defense explained, “Latvia has consistently pointed to the fact that Russian military activity in the border area, including the development of military infrastructure, raises serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country. Moreover, Russia conducts military exercises without telling its neighbors about their time and place. Therefore, the meeting would aim to achieve greater transparency from the neighboring country’s side.” The meeting’s genesis was an invitation for talks from Russia in August 2016.  In it, Latvian officials were asked to come to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent the invite to Latvia through its military attaché in Riga. Latvia responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. According to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense, “During the discussions, the parties exchanged views on the security situation in the border area. The Latvian side emphasized that Russian military activities, including large-scale military exercises, development of military infrastructure and the creation of new military units raise concerns about Russia’s intentions and long-term ambitions in the region.” It went on to state, “Also the Latvian side emphasized that most of Russia’s advanced capabilities and large-scale training Latvian border are geared towards attack rather than defense. The released further proffered, “Considering also unfriendly and sometimes hostile rhetoric with regard to Latvia, it creates the need for Latvia to seek additional security guarantees and to step up cooperation with its allies in response to Russian military activities. Taking into account developments in the last year, the Latvian side at the meeting asked for an explanation for the scale of military activities and offered ways to reduce tensions.”

With the aim of promoting mutual openness and trust in military matters, a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense stated “the Latvian side offered in addition to the existing provisions of arms control, resulting from the OSCE’s Vienna Document, one further arms control evaluation visit and one inspection of Latvian-Russian border areas . . . .” Latvia also reportedly called upon Russia “to declare its readiness for greater transparency in military activities, not only in words but also in deeds.” There was no mention of what such “deeds” might be. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense announced that there was a meeting of Defense experts in Riga on December 8th but it did not elaborate on the substance of the talks. While immediate gains of the meeting with Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials were small relative to the product of the recent meetings and agreement with Belarusian Ministry of Defense officials, its importance must be measured by the fact that formal military cooperation between Russia and Latvia had been suspended since Russia’s 2014 action in Crimea. Officials agreed to continue the dialogue between defense ministry experts of both countries.

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Latvia (shaded gold) and its neighbors. The Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s aim was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” Russia announced defense experts met in Riga but gave no details on their talks.

The Way Forward

Threat identification and threat inflation are key elements in international affairs. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. However, deciding whether a threat is truly urgent and important is difficult, and has potential pitfalls. John Mueller of the CATO Institute explained that alarmism, when successfully generated, very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse — an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. Many in the Baltic States feel that they may fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions. The threat that Russia poses to the Baltic States is authentic, and when one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. Clearly, Riga believes that there are options other than simply preparing for all out war or appeasement, particularly given its economic circumstances. Stating that Latvia has the right decide how to proceed with its foreign and defense policy as well as its economic development may seem analogous to lending light to the sun. Still, while Riga has the freedom to act as it chooses, it may have felt, and may still feel, a bit constrained about moving confidently toward overtures and bilateral talks. In an apparent effort to show deference to those partners, it has moved in that direction at a deliberate pace. Talks and agreements may appear to some friends and foes alike as cracks in shield against potential Russian aggression. However, nothing that Latvian officials have ever said would lead anyone to think Riga would accept what might be called poor Russian behavior.

The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” The renowned US conservative commentator and author, William F. Buckley, Jr. warned against the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil.  While attending day school in London, Buckley coincidently passed through the airfield at Heston Aerodrome on the rainy evening of September 30, 1938 and saw United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wave a piece of paper announcing “Peace in our time.” It is uncertain what Latvia’s latest exercise of free its will–diplomacy with Belarus and Russia–might look like in the end. There is the chance that an enterprise of this type, undertaken by Riga could collapse in a big heap. Perhaps nothing will change. Yet, Riga might just get its diplomatic effort with Belarus and Russia just right. Right actions tend to make for good deeds. The on-going enterprise holds out the promise of great rewards. Faber est suae quisque fortunae. (Every man is the artisan of his own fortune.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligence Analysts Erred

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu Investigates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retaining the Initiative to the End

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Book Review: George William Rutler, Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You (Sophia Institute Press, 2014)

Above from left to right: Saint Demetrios, a senior officer in the Roman Army; Saint George, Commander of the Guard of Roman Emperor Diocletian; Saint Procopius, a commander in the Roman Army; and, Saint Artemius, a senior commander in the Roman Army. All were martyred for proclaiming and defending their Christian faith. Along with their faith and devotion to God, the Parables of Christ were a likely source of comfort for them as they endured persecution and torture. In many countries today, the Parables comfort military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders coping with turbulent situations.

In writings and public discussions about foreign and defense policy, often absent is consideration of what is an essential part of the lives of many military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders. That element is their faith, devotion to God. It may not be easily discerned, for they usually will not wear their faith on their sleeves. It was a factor most apparent in the thinking of Christianity’s warrior saints; Roman soldiers dedicated to their duties but dedicated more to God’s truth and defending Christianity. Among the first recognized were: Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki, a high ranking officer in the Roman Army, who considered himself a soldier of Christ first and a soldier second. He was martyred in 306 A.D. by Emperor Maximian; Saint George of Lydda, who was a military officer, a Tribune, in the Guard of Emperor Diocletian. He denounced the persecution of Christians, defended Christianity was martyred by Diocletian for testimony to his faith in 303 A.D; Saint Procopius of Jerusalem, a commander in the Roman Army who turned away from the military and declared himself a soldier of Christ after defending the Christians of Alexandria and Jerusalem. He was martyred by Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D.; and, Saint Artemius of Antioch, a general of the Roman Empire and Imperial Prefect of Roman Egypt. He was accused of persecuting pagans and demolishing pagan temples and idols in Alexandria, and was recalled and martyred by Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362 A.D.

In Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You (Sophia Institute Press, 2014), Father George William Rutler offers readers a chance to understand Christ’s teachings from the Gospels using His favorite vehicle, the parable. It was the profound spiritual advice of these teachings that provided those martyrs and multitudes, a guide for living, bringing them closer to God. The Parables comforted those Christians, helping them understand that despite persecution, the difficulties and trials of life, a road to heaven exists. That encouragement, along with the power of their faith and devotion to God, helped them summon the courage to triumph over the inhumanities put before them. To better understand how in many countries today the Parables comfort military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders coping with turbulent situations, and to acquire for oneself a different way to look at those situations, Hints of Heaven is the perfect book to read.

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 a 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 the United Kingdom, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 18 books, referred to by some as classics, on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Rutler’s Hints of Heaven assembles the traditional count of twenty-four Parables of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels of the New Testament written by three of Christ’s Apostles: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel written by the Apostle John presents metaphors, but no parables. Rutler defines a parable as a similitude, employing a brief narrative in order to reach a spiritual lesson. He wants readers to understand how special the Parables are. He notes they are unlike other Eastern parables, and certainly unlike what he calls “the lesser stuff” found in current “spiritual best sellers” as they are not exotic. They do not distort or exaggerate nature in the way fables do. He says: “Kings are kings, but not wizards, and rich men are rich, but not omnipotent.” Rutler emphasizes, however, that the Parables are what Christ said they are: hints of heaven. He says that because the glory of heaven is too great for us to bear just now, Christ uses parables as delicate, veiled indicators of “our true homeland.” Hints of Heaven is masterfully written. Rutler again displays his remarkable command of the English language.

In reviewing Rutler’s Hints of Heaven, greatcharlie.com recognized that to convey a sense of religiousness makes oneself spooky to some. Writing publicly, one of course opens oneself up to constructive criticism at best and obloquy at worst. Still, a discussion tied to faith might be feared by readers on its face as being one more expression of neurotic religiosity. The majority of greatcharlie.com’s readers are primarily interested in foreign and defense policy and that presents an extra challenge in discussing the Parables. In Hints of Heaven, Rutler presents the Parables in a way that value can be found in them, certainly as spiritual guidance, but also in a way that facilitates their use in examing current international affairs. That hopefully will create interest in Hints of Heaven among those who might not consider the book ordinarily or come across the Parables at all. Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit. (Called or not called, God will be present.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been quoted as saying: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” For the spiritual, conscience is formed by God’s truth. God’s truth creates order. In addition to knowing God’s truth, one must embody His truth which is inspired by love. The truth is a great treasure, a beautiful and satisfactory explanation of the world and heaven that should speak to the individual. One should love God, love one’s neighbor, and remain virtuous by choice because it is the right thing to do. The worship of God raises one up to Him. Having faith should never mean simply succumbing to a series of obligations. Nothing seems more illogical at first to the minds of many who would consider themselves enlightened than God’s truth. They are unable to understand anything beyond familiar physical formulas. For many, God’s presence is obscured by tragic events and popular personalities boastful of their own appearance, abilities or worth who encourage the same behavior of others. Indeed, popular culture can interdict true worship by fashion and by pseudo-sophistication. Feeling empty, some individuals turn to a substitute, feel good religiosity that is easy, comfortable, and assuring. Illusions that approximate the truth, even fantasies, find acceptance. The German-American actress, singer, and agnostic, Marlene Dietrich, said during a London tour, “You can’t live without illusions, even if you must fight for them . . . .” Taking the wrong path in search of a way to worship has been said to create a neurosis, as one is deprived of what one is meant to do and to be. Causa latet, vis est notissima. (The cause is hidden, but the force is very well known.)

In the Catholic Church, leaders have indicated that far more is involved in the behavior just described than choosing to accept or reject God’s truth. Individuals are being influenced, inspired by evil.   Many among those who might consider themselves enlightened are disinclined to accept the existence of evil. Still, it exists. Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina explained “The evil spirits, because of their pride, anger, and envy, will attempt to turn your gaze away from God through their temptations or harassments, so that every thought and action you engage in might be in opposition to what the Lord desires for you.” Even if one accepts that evil exists, one needs to beware of its subtlety. Saint John Paul II explained: “Spiritual combat . . . is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which [we] engage everyday against the temptations, the evil suggestions that the demon tries to plant in [our] hearts.”

Five months before the fall of Mosul in 2014, US President Barack Obama had dismissed ISIS in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick as the ‘jay-vee’ squad of terrorists.” It is important that countries intervening against evil be certain of their motivations and intentions. Having the will to act is not enough. Accepting that good and evil, angels and demons, exist is also not enough. Evil can quiet all suspicions, making everything appear normal and natural to those with the best intentions.

Few national governments and other power centers today likely factor in evil when analyzing international events and formulating and implementing their foreign and defense policies. US President Franklin Roosevelt accepted spiritual combat between good and evil, angels and demons as a reality. He believed that World War II, which albeit began for mixed reasons, could only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil. He viewed German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler as a demonic force propelling the conflict. His plans were spelled out in Mein Kampf. Roosevelt found a like-minded partner in United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In Roosevelt’s mind, Allied forces would not fight as armies of conquest but as a force to defeat evil. Roosevelt’s belief that the war represented a battle against the forces of evil was well-expressed in his National Address and Prayer during the Invasion of Normandy, France by the Allies on June 6, 1944. Roosevelt prayed: “With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace—a peace invulnerable to the scheming of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” Churchill many times before then had signaled his belief in the demonic nature of Hitler and his evil works. In his renowned “Their Finest Hour” speech of June 18, 1940, Churchill included the following: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

US President Franklin Roosevelt accepted spiritual combat between good and evil as a reality. He believed that World War II, which albeit began for mixed reasons, could only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil. He viewed German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler as a demonic force propelling the conflict. Roosevelt found a like-minded partner in United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Roosevelt saw Allied armies as a force to defeat evil.

As Roosevelt understood, and it remains so today, the use of lethal force by countries, to fight wars, to halt evil actions or the infliction of evil upon people is not contrary to God’s truth. However, it is important that countries intervening against evil be certain of their motivations and intentions. Having the will to act is not enough. Accepting that good and evil, angels and demons, exist is also not enough. Evil can quiet all suspicions, making everything appear normal and natural to those with the best intentions. One must look deeper to discern flaws, to see what is lacking.

Following each Parable presented in Hints of Heaven, Rutler provides a short discussion. He explains their meaning and often explains how their lessons have surfaced in history. Readers can contemplate how the lessons of the Parables allow for their own assays of events in today’s world; the machinations and conduct of leaders and officials. Consider these assays of current events using Rutler’s presentation of the following Parables in Hints of Heaven: “The Wicked Husbandmen”; “The Unmerciful Servant”; and, “The Rich Fool”.

In the Parable of “The Wicked Husbandmen,” tenant farmers acted on the fantasy of taking possession of a vineyard, engaging in evil acts hold it from the owner. They were executed. European countries have kept their doors open to migrants seeking better lives. Yet, the migrant wave from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and Southwest Asia have put that practice in question. Islamic terrorist attacks have heightened European concerns over migrants. Europe’s response has included measured steps on immigration. Future attacks may result in grave steps to ensure public safety.

The Wicked Husbandmen

“Hear another parable. ‘There was a house holder who planned a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the servants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’ Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him.’ ”

Concerning this Parable, Rutler explains that as tenant farmers, the husbandmen gradually assumed proprietary airs over the vineyard. They acted on the fantasy becoming its owners. In the end, they were executed. For years, countries in Western Europe have kept their doors open to people seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Procedures exist for governments to handle all types of migrants, including asylum seekers, war refugees, and guest workers. Recognizing the plight of those people, European governments have been resolute about maintaining their countries immigration programs despite the mounting pressures of illegal immigration and the social and political backlash from some citizens. The recent wave of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, seeking to capitalize on Europe’s open doors, has created a crisis. Solutions have been sought including diplomacy with Turkey to help stem the tide of migrants. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have heightened public concerns. Having compassion toward migrants, it has been discouraging for the European public to discover that there are some, who, rather than expressing gratitude to the people of their adoptive countries, instead speak with invective about their new homes, new compatriots. Europeans must sadly accept that terrorists desperate to strike violently in their cities have infiltrated their countries by hiding among migrants. Those open to engaging in terrorist activities are a negligible fraction of Europe’s immigrant communities. Even so, such makes political leaders appear naïve and inept, and action has been demanded of them. European political leaders have acted with measured steps. Most European countries have joined the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition which is launching airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and training and equipping local forces in those countries contending with ISIS. Information sharing on terrorist groups among European intelligence and law enforcement entities has also increased. If more attacks such as those seen in Brussels, Paris, London, or Madrid should happen in Europe, a harder look will be given to immigration, not to harm migrants, but as a matter of public safety, to protect innocent citizens. Responses could include the suspension of Europe’s immigration programs, the termination of visas and citizenship for some, and possible deportations. Salus populi suprema lex. (The safety of the people is the supreme law.)

In the Parable of “The Wicked Servant,” a servant, whose lord forgave him of his indebtedness, refused to act similarly toward another servant indebted to him. The situation in Syria continues to shift in Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s favor with the help of Russia and Iran. A deal allowing Assad to remain in power for some period in Damascus, once improbable, could become reality. That decision could be rationalized by the realization that Syria’s reconstruction must get underway. Still, if vengeance would likely color Assad’s reign after a deal is reached, it might be better not to enter into any agreement with him at all.

The Unmerciful Servant

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went on, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe me.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When he fellow servants saw what he had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you!’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay his debt. So should my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Regarding this Parable, Rutler says: “Forgiveness is not an easy platitude offered to the smug; nor is it an aggressive display of pacifism.” He goes on to state: “There is no reason to forgive anyone unless it is done with enough humility to inspire humility in the one who is forgiven.” Despite how impolitic it may sound, the easiest way to handle Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s removal would be to eliminate him “covertly” as has been the case with key leaders of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Khorasan, Abu-Sayyaf, Abu-Shabab, Hezbollah, and Hamas; the list goes on. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. However, as the elected leader of a sovereign state, Assad has been given an intriguing degree of recognition and respect. Military action against his regime by the US and European powers has been predominantly on the margins. The purpose of training and equipping of Syrian Opposition rebels forces and Kurdish forces in Syria was to push Assad to the negotiating table where it was hoped he would have agreed to step down. Until September 2015, that was beginning to look possible due to additional pressures Assad’s forces were feeling from Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. However, in September 2015, the Russian Federation and Iran stepped up their assistance to Assad to include group troops and massive air support. The situation on the battlefield has been reversed seemingly obviating the need for Assad to concede anything at negotiations set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Success on the battlefield may also help to shape the political situation in Syria enough to impact national elections envisaged under that resolution. If the situation continues to shift in Assad’s favor with the help of Russia and Iran, and an agreement allowing Assad to remain in power for at least some period in Damascus, once deemed improbable in the West, might become a possibility. That decision could be rationalized by the realization that Syria’s reconstruction must get underway. However, Assad’s predilection for violence against civilians landed him on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court in 2014. If retribution and sheer vengeance colors Assad’s reign after peace is established, it might be better not to enter any agreement with him at all. Rather than influencing Assad from the battlefield, perhaps leaving him to rebuild Syria using his own devices and the wherewithal of his benefactors in Russia, Iran, and China, might do more to force him into new negotiations and concessions. In exchange for Western assistance, Assad could be required to take verifiable steps to alter his country’s political system. He may be forced to extinguish his appetite for violence against his people and depart earlier. Avarus animus nullo satiatur lucro. (A greedy mind is satisfied with no amount of gain.)

In the Parable of “The Rich Fool”, a wealthy man saw fit to build larger barns in which to store a bumper crop of grain never thinking to share with the needy. Immigration policies and programs of prosperous, industrialized Western countries demonstrate their goodwill and willingness to share in their success with the world. They have benefitted multitudes. Still, many citizens of those countries are angered that they have not shared in their countries’ success. Often, they are under paid, underemployed, worried about keeping their jobs, or languishing in hated jobs. They want political leaders to respond to them.

The Rich Fool

“The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops. And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all of my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God’.”

About this Parable, Rutler explains that the rich fool denies himself the happiness that comes from giving happiness to God, even though God does not need more happiness. Saint Augustine’s counsel helps one understand that the rich fool’s barns should have been “the bosoms of the needy, the houses of widows, the mouths of orphans and widows.”   In prosperous, industrialized Western countries, steady progress has allowed their citizens the chance to enjoy a standard of living most in other countries lack and desire. Immigration policies and programs of those Western countries demonstrate their goodwill and willingness to share in their success with the world. In recent years, multitudes have benefitted from those policies and programs. The high influx of legal immigrants has caused governments to continually consider ways to absorb them without straining services and infrastructure. Illegal immigrants have also strained those countries’ structures creating a debate among political leaders, domestic policy analysts, and law enforcement on how to act. Yet, an unsettling concern is the increased grumbling among citizens, the tax-payers of prosperous countries who, by any measure, have not enjoyed in their countries’ success. In the US, they have been dubbed “the disaffected.” Often, they are under paid, underemployed, worried about keeping their jobs, are a salary away from disaster, and languish in jobs they hate. Some feel that despite family ties, service and sacrifice in wars, and years of allegiance to their countries, they are being bypassed by newcomers. They want political leaders to respond to their needs, before responding to those of others abroad. A robust effort by US political leaders to resolve problems forestalling many citizens from sharing in their country’s success would well-exhibit the country’s goodwill toward its own people. On April 25, 2016, US President Barack Obama spoke on this issue in Hannover, Germany, saying: “Countries should not have to choose between responding to crises and investing in their people. So we need to pursue reforms to position us for long-term prosperity, and support demand and invest in the future. All of our countries, for example, could be investing more in infrastructure. All of our countries need invest in science and research and development that sparks new innovation and new industries. All of our countries have to invest in our young people, and make sure that they have the skills and the training and the education they need to adapt to this rapidly changing world.” Responding to the “disaffected” has also been a theme of candidates in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign. Candidates claim to have answers. Perhaps the one elected will respond to their needs. Divitiae effundendo magis quam coacervando, melius nitent: siquidem avaritia semper odiosos, claros largitas facit. (Wealth shines in spending, not amassing: to be close-fisted is hateful, to be open-handed splendid.)

A Very Satisfying, Very Valuable Read!

As mentioned initially, for greatcharlie.com’s readers, Hints of Heaven would not be a customary book selection as it does not directly concern foreign and defense policy. Still, reading Hints of Heaven will allow those primarily interested in international affairs to take a look at many urgent and important issues from a different and intriguing lens. This book is guaranteed to be an enjoyable respite, a very satisfying, very valued, read. There is nothing disappointing about it. Without reservations, greatcharlie.com recommends Hints of Heaven to its readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia Goes In

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

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

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

The Palmyra Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Foreign Policy Legacy

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

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

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

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

Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

Syria

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

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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