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, 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’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’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, recommends Hints of Heaven to its readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

In Syria, the US Is Bombing Friend and Foe Alike Says a Syrian Opposition Official; Action Is Needed from the Opposition, Not Complaints

These youthful fighters (above) are members of the abominable Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). ISIS poses as great a danger to its erstwhile allies, the Syrian opposition, as the Assad regime. A US-led coalition is conducting airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. If the Syrian opposition ever hoped to find advantage over those groups, its military leaders must find ways to capitalize on this new situation.

In an October 2, 2014, Washington Post op-ed entitled, “In Syria, the United States Is Bombing Friend and Foe Alike”, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem explained that US-led airstrikes have had an important positive impact against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State as he refers to it. He confirmed that ISIS has suffered real losses, and there have been fewer civilian deaths now that the Syrian Armed Forces’ aerial monopoly is broken. However, Ghanem who is a senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also claimed that substantial dangers were associated with the air campaign, pointing to a rise in anti-US sentiment in western Syria and the failure of airstrikes to halt ISIS’ movement toward Baghdad. Expressing the general sentiment of Syrian opposition members, Ghanem claimed that to preserve the viability of its strategy, the US must complement its airstrikes with firm support, in both word and deed, to “moderate anti-Islamic State Syrian opposition fighters.” Ghanem insisted that airstrikes alone will not defeat the ISIS. He stated that only close coordination with mainstream Syrian opposition forces would accomplish this. He proferred that enabling mainstream opposition fighters to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front would force ISIS to divert resources from Baghdad. Ghanem stated that unlike the Iraqi Army, mainstream opposition forces already have a record of rolling back ISIS forces. Ghanem found fault with the US-led coalition for failing to establish any significant coordination regarding airstrikes with the opposition.

It is disappointing to learn that Syrian opposition political officials are still making churlish complaints over assistance being provided by the US and other benefactors. Their “mantra” has been a demand for more arms and supplies for their forces and for greater things to be done, such as launching airstrikes against the Syrian Armed Forces to promote their success. Complaints are also often 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 three 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. They have been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Armed Forces. How easy it is for the Syrian opposition to stand in judgement of the US and others, taking a position of moral superiority and declaring they are owed certain levels of assistance from them. 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, its Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should expect more from themselves before demanding so much of others. With regard to the current situation in which a US-led coalition is hitting ISIS with airstrikes, Syrian opposition political and military leaders certainly must do more than offer lip service about their benefactors’ actions. They should consider how they might best act to capitalize on positive results with or without coordination with planners of the air campaign. If the opportunity arises, they should present proposals for coordinated action to their US government contacts. They should remain willing, even if alone, to do what is necessary to carry on their fight until final victory is achieved. Faber est suae quisque fortunae! (Every man is the artisan of his own fortunes!)

The Syrian Opposition’s Present Situation

The administration of US President Barack Obama decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. Yet, support would be kept within limits. The impatience of FSA commanders and fighters with the Obama administration over the level of its efforts is indeed well-known. Syrian opposition political and military leaders claim the size and scope of assistance is the reason behind their lack of significant success against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades. However, the real problem has been the opposition, itself. The fight for democracy in Syria was supposed to be the opposition’s fight to win alone. However, very rapidly, Syrian opposition leaders discovered the entire undertaking was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the movement’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater acumen unifying their forces. Moreover, FSA commanders have failed to display any impressive military capabilities. Many FSA units cannot perform in a military fashion.

What ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra and its offshoot Khorasan have done is find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that have been 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 have also committed countless attrocities against the Syrian people. The groups are not directed 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 mainstrean opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance will never occur. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups were becoming stronger almost daily. Their strength had already passed the point at which mainstream Syrian oppositon forces could have contended with them.  

US-led airstrikes, if unable to destroy those groups, will hopefully be able to degrade and displace them to a degree that they can no longer influence the political outcome in Syria. While FSA commanders may complain and even panic over the prospect of taking over the difficult battle lines at strategic points which ISIS and the other Islamic militant groups held, it is the only way to improve the FSA’s situation long-term. Indeed, only through on-going US-led airstrikes would the Syrian opposition ever have a chance of being positioned to succeed against the Assad regime.

What Syrian Opposition Leaders Should Be Doing

Following very public beheadings of Western citizens, ISIS was finally recognized in capitals around the world as a truly monstrous organization. It was referred to as a “death cult” by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Airstrikes, to a degree, have not as yet kept ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and similar Islamic militant groups at bay. Nevertheless, in time, they will. While the air campaign is developing, FSA commanders need to reconfigurate their forces to exploit positive effects of those airstrikes. They must find ways to maneuver their units against the Islamic militant groups and Assad’s forces. Even if ideally for the FSA commanders, airstrikes reached such an intensity that some air assets could be tasked to provide air support for FSA, those units would not be able to remain hunkered down while the work was done from the sky above. Once Islamic militant groups were destroyed or displaced in some areas by airstrikes, sufficient numbers of trained and equipped FSA fighters, perhaps a mix of veteran and newly trained recruits, would still need to be made ready to move into those group’s former positions.  If FSA commanders have not completed any of these tasks because they were uncertain over how to proceed, they should have sought specific assistance from the US and other benefactors in organizing FSA fighters and units.

What Further US Assistance Might Look Like

As ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups are degraded, the US will be provided greater freedom to effectively organize FSA units as a military force, promote the development of greater cohesion and coordination among its units, improve FSA fighting capabilities, and enhance their combat power with better arms. All of these actions together will also provide FSA with a more immediate chance to position itself to defeat Assad’s forces. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is already steeped in the Syria situation as the US agency managing the training and arming of the FSA. CIA would likely be the organization tasked with any new mission to rapidly organize mainstream fighters to cover any strategic positions left open as a result of the destruction or displacement of Islamic militant groups that once held them. CIA officers already handling the stuation in Syria have a good awareness of what is happening on the ground and would able to track Islamic militant movements caused by airstrikes. With FSA support, they likely have been continuously collecting granular information on the Islamic militant groups, including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters as they move.  They likely have already gathered information on the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and  supply depots. Data from CIA officers on the locations and activities of Islamic militant groups has undoubtedly contributed to the US-led air campaign. Important in a CIA directed effort against the Islamic militant groups would be to minimize the FSA combat power allocated to that secondary task. The bulk of FSA power would still be dedicated to fighting Assad.

Regarding possible air support for the FSA, CIA has drones available and other air assets that could be assigned to support the FSA and serve as a force multiplier. Overwatch for FSA units, as they reorganized and repositioned themselves, could be provided by drones or other CIA air assets. Whenever FSA units needed to engage ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, drones and air assets available to CIA could provide direct support. If CIA were to organize some FSA units to police ISIS and other Islamic militant fighters left in FSA territory after the collapse of their units, drones and other available CIA air assets could support that activity. Beyond human intelligence collection, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence in Syria.  Multiple streams could help CIA pinpoint and attack locations of leaders and units from ISIS and other groups even if they are dispersed by airstrikes. That information would also be very useful to CIA in providing close air support for FSA movement. 


Having discussed what Syrian opposition leaders, the Supreme Military Council, and FSA commanders might do and propose, it is important to recognize that US military and intelligence planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience in warfighting and intelligence operations, are very capable and know how to develop effective plans for action. They are aware of the capabilities of specific FSA commanders and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what would be the real possibility for success of any FSA operation. FSA commanders, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior US military and intelligence officers possess for the planning and execution of attacks coordinated with airstrikes.  If ordered by the US President to present a plan for such an operation, senior military and intelligence planners would produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies perhaps beyond what FSA commanders and their opponents might imagine.

Until that time comes, if it ever comes, the Syrian opposition must take the initiative to reinvigorate the FSA, motivate its fighters, develop a sense of unity among units, and draw up bold new plans to engage in dynamic action in the field. Authentic military leaders should be able to accomplish these tasks. The Syrian opposition may not be certain whether US airstrikes are a stroke of good luck or mean bad luck for it. However, whether it becomes either is in the hands of the Syrian opposition, itself.


Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.


On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.