Trump Uses Prior Experience, Flexible Thinking, and Even Empathy, to Make Foreign Policy Decisions Fit for Today’s World

US President Donald Trump (above). International Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO have served well in promoting global economic development, international peace and security, and providing responses to threats to democracy and freedom. Still, some countries, sensing they are surrendering a degree of control and power by creating space for the conciliation of such institutions, frequently work outside of them. Doing that well is not easy. Lessons can be drawn from Trump’s efforts at effecting change in other countries’ foreign and national security policy decision making.

Throughout centuries, overwhelming military power, hard power, has been used by empires, countries, tribes seeking to force some modifications in other groups or halt certain actions altogether. Threaded through that history has been the less frequent use of what the renowned international affairs scholar Joseph Nye referred to as “soft power”, the ability to shape the long-term attitudes and preferences of country by using economic and cultural influence rather than force. Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO, have well-served the interests of countries since the postwar era by promoting economic development worldwide, international peace and security, and providing responses to Communist aggression and other threats to democracy and freedom. However, effecting change peacefully since the end of the Cold War has often been a process in which stronger, very capable, sophisticated, industrialized countries, with a goal of “leveling the playing field”, and promoting an Utopian unreality of all countries “negotiating as equals”. Great strain and limitations have been placed on their diplomatic efforts. Indeed, they feel that they have been in a downward spiral in which they are slowly surrendering an ever increasing degree of control and power to create space for the conciliation of international institutions. Hardline political elements of those countries have gone as far as to complain that working through international institutions has resulted in an absolute derogation of their respective countries’ rights and power.In addition, authoritarian regimes have regularly exploited international institutions for their own ends. For example, Cuba and Venezuela, two of the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers, sit on the UN Human Rights Council. China exploits benefits of membership in the World Trade Organization while engaging in unfair trade practices to protect its domestic market.

In response to this dilemma, the US and a number of other countries have begun to engage more frequently outside of those institutions in their diplomatic efforts on major issues. They want to better enable themselves to determine outcomes on those efforts. Moreover, as Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State, explained in a December 11, 2018 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal: “With the international order under siege from actors that would remake it in their own illiberal image, the Trump administration is acting to preserve a just, transparent and free world of sovereign states.” Surely, this does not mean that international institutions are not being abandoned. Efforts are being made to reform them. Abandoning them completely would be a terrible miscalculation for their good offices still have purpose in certain urgent and important multilateral, regional, and global diplomatic situations. Rather, as an alternative, countries can cooperate effectually by making themselves the guarantors of their own domestic freedoms and national interests. Once national leaders become involved in bilateral or multilateral diplomacy outside of the auspices of an international institution, they must be a bit shrewder, more incisive, have an optimal situational awareness, and remain truly dedicated to reaching an agreement or resolution as there will be no “middleman” available to referee or mediate. They must be willing to struggle with an idea until its inception, rather than back away from finding a solution because it takes too much effort, energy, and time. Countries may not be able to insist upon negotiating as equals outside of international institutions, but that matter can be overcome by acting with a heightened spirit of goodwill. National leaders and negotiators must ensure that they are empathetic toward an opposite’s circumstances and positions.

Lessons can be drawn from the approaches taken by Trump aimed at affecting change in the foreign and national security policy decision making of other countries in his first term while working outside the auspices of international institutions. There might be some disagreement with this suggestion, but often from what observers might perceive as crises, Trump has managed to create starting points for new beginnings in relations with other countries. Trump sees potential in everything. As a result, if he sees a better way, an easier route to put the figurative golden ring in his reach, there will occasionally be surprise shifts in his approaches. His critics and detractors insist that there are strictures on foreign and national security decision making to which he must adhere as US President. However, Trump, having been engaged in international business for years, has had time to examine the world using his own lens, and not a political or bureaucratic prism. He came to office confident that he could maneuver well among the galer of national leaders, each with his or her own ideas, goals, ambition, will, and predilections. He indeed exhibits the type of flexibility of thinking and action that an accomplished general would hope to display in war. It is possible that he has by instinct the methodology to do it all well. By identifying and examining patterns in his efforts, lessons become available. From an out-of-the-box perspective, an abbreviated discussion is provided here of the types of considerations behind Trump’s thinking on four salient foreign and national security policy issues set before his administration: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”) denuclearization; Russian election interference in the US; the Russia-Ukraine confrontation in the Azov Sea (Kerch Strait); and, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Khashoggi assassination. The intention here is not to insist that other national leaders should be guided by the meditations of greatcharlie on Trump’s decision making. Rather, the discussion simply outlines what may be some of the new necessities of thinking and reasoning by national leaders and their foreign and national security policy decision makers today as more countries seek to engage in diplomacy outside of international institutions. Further, it is hoped that the discussion here will become part of policy debate concerning the Trump administration. ‘Tu me’ inquis ‘mones? iam enim te ipse monuisti, iam correxisti? ideo aliorum emendationi vacas?’ Non sum tam improbus ut curationes aeger obeam, sed, tamquam in eodem valetudinario iaceam, de communi tecum malo colloquor et remedia communico. (“What,” say you, “are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.)

Trump (left) and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un (right) in Singapore. The Singapore Summit was held on June 12, 2018. in the months since, Kim, nestled in Pyongyang, has likely become comfortable. Just thinking now and then about drawing closer to denuclearization and the future Trump presented, likely disrupts that sense of comfort. Calculating what would actually be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country, may make change a less attractive. Encouriaging Kim to move forward may be a challenge for Trump, but not an insurmountable one.

The DPRK and Denuclearization

Given DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un’s apparent temporizing on the decision to denuclearize, critics and detractors of Trump would want everyone aware of the interactions between the US and DPRK to believe that Kim is using the US President to achieve his own ends. However, even if Kim actually feels that there is something more to the idea of denuclearization, surely he would still be hesitant to advance the matter. It would only be natural for anyone to have a bout with wintery feet facing the enormity of the potential undertaking before Kim. In the chambers where Kim and the DPRK’s most senior officials make decisions on foreign and national security policy, innovative and imaginative thinking would hardly be welcomed and denuclearization is likely accepted unenthusiastically. What has been produced there for quite some time has usually been uninspired stuff, aimed primarily at advancing the ideals of the Worker’s Party of Korea . Kim is surely aware of what happened in Russia economically with the help of “Western experts” after the fall of the Soviet Union. As mentioned in the July 27, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “To Foster Forward Movement on Denuclearization by Kim, Trump Says there Is No Rush, But His Patience Has Limits”, a complete trust in Trump hardly could have sprouted and blossomed exponentially in Kim during the Singapore meeting. Months have passed since Singapore, Kim is some distance away from it all. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have morphed into considerable apprehension since. Kim has been comfortably nestled in Pyongyang. Drawing closer to the world that Trump presented, would require Kim to tear away from the only world he and his people have known. Just ruminating about what would be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country may make it all seem so difficult and thereby a less attractive option.

When mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with another country or countries, the foreign and national security policy machinery of countries as the DPRK will very often move with the same speed as the massive naval dreadnoughts of early and mid-20th century. Wheeling those giant ships port or starboard took real effort. They often moved so slowly that during World War II in particular, they became relatively easy targets for dive bombers and torpedo planes. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan interests can even surpass their enthusiasm over the matter at hand. Decisions are usually reviewed endlessly, as they seek to advance their organizations’ parochial interests in an optimal way. Indeed, the bureaucracies can suffer the paralysis of analysis. Compromise is usually reached as last resort. Yet, “turf battles” can become so volatile on an issue that often in the end, while there may have been some compromise from the different organizations, no satisfactory decision is made at all, no approach truly beneficial to the country is advanced. Another result can be some composite solution that will be ineffectual in resolving the matter at hand in the best interests of their country. Further, there can be a result in which too many points, most of which were found to be too controversial to settle on in the bureaucratic struggle, are left uncovered, making it virtually impossible to proceed in the best interest of their country on a matter. All of this makes encouraging change in the thinking of another countries foreign and national security policy appear insurmountable. Trump and his advisers and aides have taken all of this into full consideration, and remain confident that the administration’s efforts will lead to success. In fact, it remains a goal in Washington to find a way to get Kim to accelerate his efforts at denuclearization. What they would like to do is create an occasion on which Kim to have a second chance to be in contact with the persuasive and assuring Trump. For Trump, there is a type of voluptuous quality about the entire challenge, as it will require the full use of his capabilities along the lines of excellence. Moreover, Trump has the freedom to maneuver in his own unique and often successful ways in the negotiation process. He does not need to be concerned that an international institution might impose limitations on his ability to make deals. Fortuna adversa virum magnae sapientiae non terret. (Adverse fortune (adversity) does not frighten (intimidate) a man of great intellect.)

As a practical matter, negotiating countries should ascribe probabilities of their opposites’ likely actions and reactions respectively. In that vein, national leaders of the negotiating countries must also be a bit more empathetic of each others circumstances. As the negotiation process continues, direct communication must be used to convey and remind what the expectations are for both sides and respective red-lines on trade-offs that neither side will cross. Nothing does more to prove how vested the other is on an issue when one party absolutely refuses to negotiate on it, even when perhaps minor agreements tied to it are reached in the negotiating process. Every country has lines that it simply will not cross. If anything, those small steps that might be achieved should serve to build confidence on other matters as the negotiations continue. If one country feels unduly pressured or imposed upon, some capitals could react in a disproportionately negative way. One-sided outcomes successfully forced down one party’s throat will not last.  One-sided outcomes, even if consented to by the initiating party will rarely survive over time. This was recently observed with regard to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Paris Agreement of Climate Change.

Months have passed since Singapore. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have possibly morphed into considerable apprehension. The foreign and national security policy machinery of the DPRK, mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with the US, is moving very slowly. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan positions undoubtedly far surpass their “enthusiasm” over denuclearization. 

For Trump, as would be the case for any US president, success in such an endeavor would also depend upon the ability to create an outcome that supports balance in the international order; that is compatible with US values and interests. If the matter at hand is urgent enough, substantial resources and energy will be speedily directed to it. That has been the case with DPRK denuclearization; trade with China; and the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. For Trump specifically, there would most likely be a determination to remain stalwart at the side of the US public. Without deviation, he will keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers how he will encourage and initiate the changes he desires. He will also keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers withdrawing from US military commitments overseas. While reelection in 2020 is certainly the goal and the plan, Trump is not in a popularity contest to the extent that he only wants to make the US public happy or get the people to like him. (Many do already.) He wants to do what is best for their true interests, both for the short-term and the long-term. In that respect, Trump cannot always, metaphorically, serve dessert first, but there is always something better coming.

Omnis nimium longa properanti mora est. (Every delay is too long to one who is in a hurry.) As a caveat, one should not become so steeped in the effort to encourage and draw the response from the other side that one would be willing to make concessions that were never even imagined before the negotiation process began. Trading off something a country’s negotiators would prefer not to relinquish, a major concession, may very well be required at some point. It is almost an immutable part of the process of negotiating at the international level. Still, a line must be drawn along the measure at which nothing beyond would be acceptable. To lessen the pain of giving up anything, whatever one might be willing to part with must be determined and enumerated before any diplomatic negotiations begin. When mulling over what to give up, one must use reason to determine what it’s relative value might be to the other side. It must be useful enough to create some sense of equity, balance, and perhaps if a side is lucky, it might represent some real gain. (In that process of determining what would be best to trade versus what might be gained, difficulties can arise internally in many national governments’ foreign and national security bureaucracies.) Concerning the DPRK and denuclearization, the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of the DPRK. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense on where things stand in the DPRK regarding denuclearization. Where explanations are somewhat unclear, there becomes the need to ascribe the probability of success from the interpretations of what has said and even what has not been said during negotiations and in the briefest communications to include pull asides and other less formal discussions away from the negotiating table. Attention would also need to be placed on what is said contemporaneously among officials from the respective countries who may have met on unrelated matters. That would include theories, surmisals, and any offhand comments. When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services.

US Air Force U2 Surveillance Plane (above). When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above.

As greatcharlie explained in its May 31, 2018 post entitled, “An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump”, for intelligence services, getting to know what is happening in a country, regarding a particular event or issue will invariably require having agents who are in the right place, are articulate, can answer questions, and receive instructions. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above. Electronic collection, although very costly, has brought many benefits, by allowing for the monitoring of all manner of communications, discovering plans, patterns of activity and locations of targets. Many have grumbled for years in the intelligence industry that increased use of such surveillance and reconnaissance systems has resulted in the disappearance of the sure-fire agent on the ground with his string of spies and informants and with a willingness to travel the danger route. When this issue became most apparent in the US in the late 1970s and the 1980s, there were efforts to make adjustments, but it is still posited that human intelligence has taken a back seat in favor of technology.  Illud autem ante omnia memento, demere rebus tumultum ac videre quid in quaque re sit: scies nihil esse in istis terribile nisi ipsum timorem. (Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.

Trump has no intention of moving down a blind alley. Regarding the use of his “gut feelings”, intimations backed up with the strength of reports and briefings from intelligence community, military, and diplomatic professionals. Supported in that way, such feelings are less guesses than judgments based on the aggregate of all the information received, tied in with an awareness of seemingly abstract pieces of information to form an orderly and coherent perception. During World War II, German military commanders were known for relying on intimations based on what was occurring on the battlefield and perceptions of what the thinking and planning was in the opponent’s command center. Still, in contemplating what Kim might do, the US will do much more than rely on such hunches. The administration cannot afford to become complacent even to the slightest degree. It will remain vigilant and cautious. Resources have been dedicated to surveilling developments at North Korean nuclear sites. As many analytical resources as possible should also be dedicated to the discernment of signs of a reversal in Pyongyang.

Il ne fait pas l’ombre d’un doute que Trump and his advisers and sides will seek to be read-in on daily assessments, appraisals, and conclusions. Concrete facts, inference, interpolations from data, intimations, hunches based on experience, will all be heard and considered when senior US foreign and national security policy officials meet. Leg work by a secret grey army of US intelligence officers in the region and confirmed reports from agents ensconced naked where detection could mean certain death, serve to confirm possible actions or unsettling activity, even if not immediately threatening, would be rapidly synthesized and provided to decision makers. Those consumers may also have an interest in reading reports from intelligence officers of regional allies and their agents, as well as data streams from technical collection systems of those allies. US allies just might discern something the US might have missed. Despite the most optimistic hopes and projections on the DPRK, Trump remains ready to process in his mind what he sees to surmount what he is hoping for. Looking deeper allows one to see what is lacking. The diplomatic process with the DPRK cannot sit between success and failure in a figurative foreign policy halfway house. Previous administrations submitting to the fantasy that the DPRK wanted peace allowed Pyongyang to establish a pattern of success that very likely helped build Kim’s self-confidence in dealing with US. One can be assured that Trump will not base his decision on an emotional response, and bend too much in an effort to understand the uneasiness of Kim’s position. It is most important for Kim to know that.

Trump (right) and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left). The efforts of Russian operatives were too unnatural, too unusual. Their focus was primarily on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity, and were detected. The fact that Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public was disproportionate to the degree of risk involved with undertaking a political manipulation effort of such magnitude in the US.

Russia’s Ongoing Election Interference

The unique qualities and character of each US President in great part impels the US public to select them on election day. As chief executive of the US Government, the president is required to take certain positions and actions in accord with US values and interests. Yet, it is the unique qualities and character of each which causes the choices of each to diverge a bit or a lot from those of their predecessors. How a president will act on certain foreign and national security policy issues will typically be outlined during an election campaign for the public to read and hear. From what is enumerated, the public will form an opinion on a candidate. Indeed, in the end, it is not what is wrong with a candidate that sticks in the mind of a voter that is so important. It is what is right for the voter which makes the difference. The thinking of the US public generally moves in that direction.

To clarify further on the perception of how a candidate will perform differently to satisfy the voter, there must be the belief that the candidate will make a positive difference in their lives personally such as making them financially better off and more secure, allowing for improvement to their communities by making more services available and life better in general, and in the country by improving its condition, guiding it in a positive direction, and ensuring its status as a world leader and force for good. Negative ideas that might to orbit around a preferred candidate and even a rival candidate, while seemingly important in campaign efforts–every campaign has elements that focus on those matters and to an extent promulgate negative information on an opponent–and in news media stories broadcasted, published, and posted, may remain correlative, even de minimus, in the minds of many voters. In some cases, the negative information about a preferred candidate may drive voters to the polls to ensure their candidate wins.

Although Russian Federation intelligence services may pride itself in having what it believes to be considerable expertise on the US affairs, it surely is not up to snuff when it comes to understanding US politics. While their studies and observations of the US may have appeared to yield a genuine picture of the broad US political scene, certainly when it came to understanding what was happening in the lead up the 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Presidential Election, they completely missed the mark. An immediate impression is that since Russian analysts lacked points of reference within their own society that resembled what was happening in the US, there was really nothing upon which they could found their interpretations and conclusions. As social media was a main focal point on which Russian operatives sought to inflict considerable damage during the 2016 US Presidential Elections, it appears that much of what was collected and extrapolated about the US political scene came from popular, yet incredibly hostile commentaries propagated on social media by emotional individuals across of the political spectrum, political activists, and fringe elements who simply attack and lack boundaries. The Russians analysts could not discern that what was on social media did not reflect what was going on in the mind of the US public. Basing the interference operation on that sort of failed interpretation of US political activity, meant it was doomed from the start. Essentially, it was sabotaged by ignorance. As they performed their mission, the efforts of Russian operatives, being too imitative, too unnatural, too unusual, stood out. It was all nothing more than  a soupy simulacrum of the real thing. Their focus was almost solely on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity. Their efforts  were out of rhythm and rhyme with the stylings of authentic political message of mainstream US political parties. No matter how well Russian operatives may have believed their operation was cloaked, executed, and managed, those who began investigating what was going on could flag their burlesque without too much difficulty. The fact that Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reportedly won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public. The operation’s modicum of success was disproportionate relative to the degree of risk involved in undertaking an extensive political manipulation effort in the US. The interference operation really appears to have been an act of vengeance more than anything else. Passion did not obey reason in the Kremlin.

Added to that, the US intelligence community and law enforcement had the technological means to trace the efforts of Russian operatives all the way home to their headquarters. So successful were the counterintelligence efforts of the US intelligence community and law enforcement that they could determine when and how things happened and who was involved. For example, they acquired complete profiles of those members of the Russian Federation’s Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU involved with the interference operation. They were able to determine the particular role each played in it. Recall that Putin reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, and he was named Secretary of the Security Council. Having observed the US collect such granular information on the operation, it is very likely that Putin had parsed out that someone in Russia’s intelligence services pointed the US in the right direction. He likely began to believe that there was a rotten apple buried somewhere at the bottom of the Russian intelligence apple barrel. One might informally speculate that anger, even rage over the the ability of the US to discover so much might have been one more straw on the pile that has caused Russia to lash out at the West, and those in West’s fold, in ham-handed ways since. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions))

The fact that Russia sought to disrupt the democratic process of the country is what makes the interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election so insidious. A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he is enchanted with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous. This tenuous notion became a story was heavily covered even before Trump’s inauguration, and has received even greater coverage since. The story considered in light of reports from the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, has been posited as the causality for the investigations of the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The reality is that rather finding a national leader as Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about them. In the past year, Trump observed Putin behave in a very disappointing manner. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has closely monitored hostile Russian moves, not only the continued interference in US elections, but also: Russia’s continued interference in the election processes of countries other than the US; Russia’s efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and, Russia’s efforts to tighten its grip on Crimea and the Donbass. As it was explained in the October 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage”, Trump has repeatedly gotten on Putin’s case about the matter, and has publicly insisted that he has done so. Trump also has surely shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world with a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be an honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. It would seem that Trump could publicly snatch Putin’s lunch away, eat it, and pop the bag in his face, and critics would still say he too soft on the Russian leader. There could not be a worse source or gauge of Trump’s interactions with Putin than his critics and detractors.

German troops passing through Ardennes Forest on their way to France in 1940. (above). Trump knows it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirm some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. The failure of consumers to include assessments of situations in their calculations can be unfortunate. Consider how the French military high command failed their government In 1870, 1915, and 1940 by dismissing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments.

Trump knows that it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirms some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. Predictions concerning an action are made more urgent when commingled with existing impressions of a national government or national leader, specifically, based on behavior both at home and abroad. The consequence of insufficient intelligence analyses, the failure by consumers to include valuable forecasts in their appraisals of situations, can be most unfortunate. Consider for example how the military high command of France failed their government 3 times in 70 years by minimizing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments. In 1870, the Supreme Command of the French Imperial Army, with its attitude of debrouillez-vous (“We’ll muddle through somehow”), did not heed signalling that the Prussian Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1918, the French Grand Quartier Général (General Headquarters) did not heed indicia signalling that the Imperial German Army, to avoid French defenses on the Franco-German border, would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1940, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council, relying on the defenses of the Maginot Line, did not heed indicia signalling that the German Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. Even with this history, in 1944, the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe ignored idicia signalling that the German Army might attempt to move via the the Ardennes Forest into Belgium in an attempt to reach Antwerp and cut Allied Forces into two pieces. The result was the Battle of the Bulge in which US forces suffered an estimated 75,000 casualties.

A newly discovered official US Government memorandum has revealed that intelligence collected about the activities of the Imperial Japanese Navy, led to assessments that Japan might attack the US on the West coast, the Panama Canal, and the US naval and military bases in Hawaii some time in December 1941. The Japanese Imperial Navy would eventually execute a devastating surprise, aircraft carrier-based, aerial attack and submarine attack on the US Naval Base and Headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and aerial attacks against the US Army Base at Schofield Barracks and the US Army Air Corps Base at Hickam Field. Most US military commanders were bewildered by the successful attack which they never would have believed Japan could execute before it actually happened. By leaning into those beliefs, they were caught flat-footed by the attack. Their immediate responses were meager and ineffectual.

There were more recent occasions when intelligence was not given primacy required and not sufficiently analysed and integrated in the decision making of a US administration. Boiled down to the bones, in the late summer of 2001, the administration of US President George Bush was remiss in not giving primacy to information indicating the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the US. In fact, Al-Qaeda did strike on September 11, 2001. Failing to become overly concerned over warnings of an impending terrorist attack, the Bush administration did not formulate and implement an effectual response to deter or defeat the threat that revealed itself. As explained in the December 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?”, US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced; Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds.

How a US President might proceed at forks on the road on policy concerning, a countries, or group of countries will typically be based on information provided by the US intelligence community. Sometimes, that information will create a clear path on which the president can proceed with a relatively assured step. In cases in which US responses have been ineffectual or simply wrong, there may have been a failure to integrate information that warned that success was unlikely. Sometimes, “The path is smooth that leads on to danger.” If the US public were kept aware of every occasion in which Russia posed a threat or interfered with US interests, and if the US Government were to react publicly to concerns and intelligence reports about Russian activity, certainly the US would have stumbled into war with Russia long ago. Consider for example that the Russians regularly use their satellites to interfere with US satellites as they transit the Earth. That situation is made more challenging by the fact that there is considerable positive cooperation between the US and Russia on space and it would be disadvantageous to tear it apart. In that same vein, an honest assessment must be made of where incidents fit into the bigger picture of vital US interests and the maintenance of international peace and security. At best, the country must rely on a president’s experience and judgment as each incident arises.

Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources.

Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections. Trump can continue to respond to its behavior by keeping the most effective punitive economic measures in place. However, he also knows that Putin, to the best of his ability has thought through the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. He does not at least publicly appear overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against Russian interests and its allies. Beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, Trump has sought to close the door on Russian election meddling activities against the US as best as possible, build a positive personal relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump, a patriotic US citizen, very likely feels some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from his acting in a measured way. Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown, and keeping it going seems a bit barky. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more enabled US intelligence services and law enforcement are to uncover Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. Perhaps he is on the verge of becoming conscious or accepting of that now.

According to Kiev, the confrontation in the Kerch Strait began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard. (The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway separating the Black and Azov seas.) The Russian Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 sailors are now being held in Crimea by Russia.

Russia, Ukraine and the Kerch Strait Incident

Trump came to office with the intention of assuaging the long standing tension and anger that characterized the US-Russia relations, exacerbated by the Obama administration’s poor stewardship of it. He did not begin by trying the figuratively test the water nervously with his big toe. With boldness, he jumped right in, attempting to find a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between themselves and their two countries and hopefully as a result, a decent arrangement for interaction could be created. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them. With any luck, Putin would understand and appreciate what Trump has been doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. It has been a bedeviling process. At Helsinki, there was an incident that certainly raised Trump’s antennae. Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Putin took the anomalous and very awkward step of presenting Trump with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.” Trump stated that he would give the ball to his son Darren, and tossed it to the First Lady, Melania Trump. One could immediately observe by his visage that Trump would want answers from his team on what Putin’s move was all about.

Although, with some effort, benign intent can be posited to Putin’s presentation of the ball to Trump. The negative side of Putin may have been on full display. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may very well be that Trump felt vibrations about trouble ahead with him. It was also very surprising because Putin, an acute watcher and listener. should have known by the time he met with Trump in Helsinki that the presentation of the ball would have created more difficulties than inroads with him. Critics and detractors of Putin would surely explain that he did not seek to gain anything from doing such an unorthodox thing and that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President’s churlish thinking. Si animus infirmus est, non poterit bonam fortunam tolerare. (If the spirit is weak, it will not be able to tolerate good fortune.)

The clash between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait makes plain the reality that problems between the two countries are deepening. According to Kiev, the confrontation began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard in the Kerch Strait. The Russian Federation Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. In addition, Russia scrambled jets and helicopters, and even blocked the Kerch Strait with a barge, closing access to the Sea of Azov. Russia claims the Ukrainian ships violated territorial waters. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 crewmen as have been held as of January 2019 by Russia in Crimea. The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway that serves as the gateway from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective, it is most importantly, the waterway between mainland Russia and Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Both countries have the right to patrol the waters in accord with a bilateral treaty. However, the strait is also the site of a new 12-mile bridge built by Russia that cost an estimated $4 billion. Russia has significantly built up its military presence in the region since 2014.

Russian Federation FSB officer (left) escorts Ukrainian sailor (right). Trump indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. In flight, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.”

The incident in the strait alarmed senior US officials. Sharp criticism of Russia’s actions were immediately voiced. For US allies in Europe, the incident was edge of the seat stuff. There were widespread calls for Russia to immediately release the 24 Ukrainian sailors it captured, and some European leaders called for fresh sanctions against Russia. Kiev put martial law in effect for 30 days in Ukraine. The Kremlin scoffed at an appeal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for NATO to reinforce the Azov Sea with naval ships. Russia shrugged off Western pressure. Moscow maintained that the crisis was created by Poroshenko for political gain. When Trump commented on the matter right after occurred, his words fell short of condemning Russia directly by stating: “I don’t like that aggression.” While there was nothing irregular about that, Trump’s critics and detractors, in response, characterized him as being too reticent on the matter. However, the situation was fluid, and Trump wanted to collect all the information available before taking any steps. So profound was his reaction that he reportedly signalled to the Washington Post that he would consider forgoing the meeting with Putin after the incident in Kerch Strait and escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Trump then indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. Early in the flight, however, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.” He added: ““I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Likely swept off their feet over “how well” they were managing their interactions with US and believing that they had a handle on the highly publicized meeting with Trump at the G-20 Summit Meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Putin and his whole cabaret of acolytes were caught completely off guard by his decision. Coming down from their overdose of confidence, their immediate concern would reasonably have been what Trump’s move would mean in terms of future Russian interactions with the US. The Kremlin’s worry seemed to be manifested in the attitude and behavior of Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. At the time, his works lacked a usual sense of certitude. There was a noticeable absence of his normal swagger. He presented a less impressive substitute of himself. Early on November 29, 2018, Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the meeting between Trump and Putin would take place December 1, 2018 around noon. He explained, “We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state.” He added that “Washington has confirmed.” Agitated by Trump’s tweet, Peskov told TASS Russian News Agency that the Kremlin had not been informed separately by the White House of the cancellation. He made the necessary correction by stating, explained, “If this is indeed the case, the president [Putin] will have a couple of additional hours in his schedule for useful meetings on the sidelines of the summit.”

Whatever could have led the Kremlin to think for a moment that they ever had a firm handle on Trump is a bit of a black box. Among the basket of possibilities, one might hypothesize that the vengeful thinking the prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration is now insinuating itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. (Many of former Obama administration officials successfully needle Kremlin’s officials by presenting acidic analyses of Putin’s behavior, antagonistic critiques of Russian foreign and national security policy, and make warlike recommendations on handling Russia for the Trump administration.) There is the possibility that Putin and Kremlin officials, being vexed by Trump’s willingness to bargain on the basis of fairness with them, chose the easy answer of simply continuing to do what they had been doing in response to Obama. There is also the possibility that being unable to understand Trump, and believing that his range of action, ability to do big things, and take on real challenges, was likely restrained somewhat by his domestic political struggles, which they doubtlessly perceive as amusing. If that perchance is the case, there is the possibility that Russian intelligence analysts covering the US political scene have been remiss by conceivably allowing highly politicized commentaries from Trump’s critics and detractors and iniquitous reports in the US news media insinuate themselves in their assessments. It is possible that any penetration by the GRU and the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR in the US may simply be collecting: chicken feed; misleading information grabbed because it was within easy reach of officers, sounded plausible, and would look good in Moscow; or, false reports conjured up by delinquent officers just to look good or prolong their postings in the US. (It can happen even in the best intelligence services.) Additionally, Kremlin officials may have decided to simply leave well-enough alone and remain satisfied with stale, derivative analyses that would serve the bureaucratic requirement of producing some product, but inhibits the exploration or exploitation of opportunities for positive engagement with, and actions toward, the US.

Trump did not make contact with Putin on December 1, 2018 at the G-20 Summit. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the leaders stood for a group photo. Still, having studied the the Obama administration responses to very questionable moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. A conversation finally occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires, organized for the national leaders and their wives. Putin told reporters later that they discussed the “Black Sea situation.”

Having studied the Obama administration’s responses to contentious moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. Putin’s reaction to that approach was adverse and disproportionate. Sensing that Putin may actually have a penchant for destroying progress made with the US, Trump would not set him up with the opportunity to do so again. Moreover, Trump saw no need to move up the ladder of escalation for no benefit, for no purpose. Apparently as an expression of his disappointment with Putin over Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait, Trump did not make contact with him for most of the day, December 1, 2018. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the world’s leaders stood for a group photo. Kremlin officials insisted throughout the day that the two leaders would ultimately meet. Finally, the two leaders had an “informal” conversation. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the conversation occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires’ famous Teatro Colón, organized for the national leaders and their wives. As for its content, Saunders stated: “As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the First Lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin.” Putin told reporters afterward that he indeed met with Trump briefly at the event and they discussed the situation in Ukraine. Putin further explained, “I answered his questions about the incident in the Black Sea. He has his position. I have my own. We stayed in our own positions.”

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s patience has limits. However, he will at least make the effort manage contact with Putin as best as possible to get a successful result. If it should all fall apart, it will not be because of a silly move or the failure to do everything feasible within reason to promote it. Again, Trump is not doing any of this for himself; he has committed himself to this process for the sake of his country and the US public in particular. He will not allow his personal feelings about those he may deal with to get in the way.

Jamal Khashoggi (right) entering the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the Consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Khashoggi Matter

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere. Before the murder, the Turkish Government had been monitoring a 15-person team that arrived at the consulate on October 2, 2018. That team returned to Riyadh the same day. The Turkish Government reportedly provided US officials with both audio and video recordings that confirm Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate.

Omnis enim ex infirmitate feritas est. (All savageness is a sign of weakness.) The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. With the advantage of hindsight, it would appear that the assassination plot was formed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter. On dit, the Khashoggi assassination has also allegedly provided a candid look at how the Saudi Arabian Government has typically quieted voices of perceived adversaries both at home and abroad.

When the furtive “wet work” of an intelligence services is uncovered, the consequences for the national government that sanctioned the mission and it’s operatives, even if they avoided detection and capture if acting in another country, can be severe. This is a unique and not so often discussed area of commonality among national leaders. An affinity could surely develop for others in that same circumstance. Attendant to that affinity is a type of empathy that may insist the one should not be too judgmental or harshly slam another leader, particularly over an intelligence misstep or disaster. That empathy may obviate efforts to claim the moral high road and false claim of innocence after perhaps having similar experience. In international affairs, much as in “ordinary life” only partial version of oneself is offered. The priority of coexistence must be considered in what one might say or do versus what might be gained or lost. Countries may spare the feelings, national pride, or honor of allies and friends or even or avoid provoking or inciting adversaries. To that extent, acting in that way requires a country to circumscribe itself. Typically, a national leader who might sign off on any covert operation will be provided with the ability to plausibly deny knowledge of it. Yet, on top of that, secrecy, albeit deceit, might be used to protect relationship with an ally or friend and to make any act of circumscription by that ally or friend a bit easier.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (above). The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. From all news media reports, it would appear that the assassination plot was executed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter.

Any harsh criticism and expressions of deep disappointment conveyed by the US to Saudi Arabia–which most likely have been made by Trump in his telephone contacts with Riyadh early on during the matter–would never be explicit with an ally of such stature. Certainly, Trump did not shy away from the beastiality of the crime. What Trump and senior administration officials tried to do is bring perspective to the matter. On November 28, 2018, then US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon reminded reporters that as of the moment he was speaking about the Khashoggi matter: “We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun.” He further explained that the US still expected those responsible for the killing to be held accountable. In a November 28, 2018 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expatiated on the matter, summarizing the position of the US Government as follows: “The US doesn’t condone the Khashoggi killing, which is fundamentally inconsistent with American values—something I have told the Saudi leadership privately as well as publicly. President Trump has taken action in response. Twenty-one Saudi suspects in the murder have been deemed ineligible to enter the US and had any visas revoked. On Nov. 15, the administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis under Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. We’ve worked to strengthen support for this response, and several countries, including France and Germany, have followed suit. The Trump administration will consider further punitive measures if more facts about Khashoggi’s murder come to light.” Pompeo went on the explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as a regional ally, by additionally stating: “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the US-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.” Yet, once Trump and his senior officials sought to explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as an ally when discussing the Khashoggi matter, a knee-jerk response of critics and detractors was the hackneyed claim that the US President placed a pecuniary interest in its Middle East ally at greater value than the life of journalist. That claim was stated so often that it became a common observation.

wTrump (left) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (right). An intriguing type of leadership could be seen from Trump on the Khashoggi matter. A US President must keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage, is a role model to much of rest of the world. It is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide. If the US had officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the murder and that a strong response was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken tough steps against it. 

Through Trump’s decision making regarding the Khashoggi matter, an intriguing type of leadership could be seen in him. A US President in considering how to proceed on a matter, must indeed keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage is a role model to much of rest of the world. As such, the US is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide through its actions. The values and interests of the US, of course, will hold primacy in decision making on a matter, the interests of allies and partners will also be taken into account. In the Khashoggi case, the reality is that the murder occurred in Turkey (although the Saudi Arabian Consulate is technically the sovereign territory of Saudi Arabia). As reported, the assassination team that killed Khashoggi came into Turkey through Istanbul Airport and a number of the co-conspirators moved in and around the streets of Istanbul before and after the killing. If the US had immediately and officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for the murder and that some form of retribution was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken some type of steps against it. Turkey may very well have acted unilaterally and swiftly, utilizing its military or intelligence services, to punish those who used its country as the site to slaughter an esteemed and welcomed journalist. Turkey would have unlikely felt that it needed the permission of the US to act, just as Saudi officials, at some level, doubtlessly felt that they did not need to confer with or ask the permission of the US to act against Khashoggi.

As for the US role in mitigating Turkey’s likely desire for retribution, it offered not only words exhorting restraint, but also served as an example of restraint. Consider that there was a preexisting animus between Turkey and Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi murder. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia was angered over Turkey’s support to Qatar and withdraw its troops from the country. That demand caused Turkey to perceive Saudi Arabia as a threat to Turkey’s interests. In Riyadh, Turkey was on the top of its list of enemies. Khashoggi’s murder brought tensions to new heights. Knowing this, Saudi Arabia, days after the murder, made a secret offer to pour billions of dollars into Turkey’s economy and ease its hard-line stance on Qatar if Ankara helped whitewash the scandal. Turkey rejected the proposal. Afterward, Turkey allegedly began producing evidence that indicated Mohammed bin Salman was involved. Nevertheless, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan did stop short of accusing Prince Mohammed directly. He would only posit that responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lied at “the highest levels” of the Saudi Arabian Government. Turkey’s fresh anger against Saudi Arabia also added to decades of animus toward the Arab World ignited as a result of battles of the Ottoman Empire to maintain order. What happened so long ago remains a big part of Turkish history, culture, and psyche. Indeed, the loss of many young Turkish soldiers in Arabia still touches the hearts of many Turkish families. None of this is to suggest or imply that an anti-Arab strain runs through Turkish thinking today. Nonetheless, given that memories of past wars persist, and the fact that emotions were running very high after the Khashoggi murder, convincing Turkey, free to act on its own, not to act, was not an easy thing to do. Turkey, as the guarantor of its own national interests, made the choice to cooperate effectively with US diplomatically, outside the auspices of an international institution.

Trump has made shrewd, empathetic considerations whenever acting on foreign and national security policy. His judgments have been made with circumspection, and are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he develops his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measures what might be lost versus what might be gained short-term and long-term. A great portion of the US public, watching him, feels assured that all will be fine.

The Way Forward

In Act 3, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, King Cymbeline of Britain has married a woman who has made him her puppet. Cymbeline arranges for his beautiful daughter, Imogen, to marry his new wife’s son, Cloten, but she instead marries the poor but worthy Posthumus Leonatus. Angered, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Before he leaves for Italy, Imogen gives him a diamond ring and he gives her a bracelet. In Italy, Posthumus encounters a Iachimo, who vacuously argues all women are naturally unchaste, and bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. Yet, once at the British court, he fails to seduce her. Full of tricks, Iachimo hides in a large chest he has sent to her room; slips out at night while Imogen slept, and steals the bracelet Posthumus gave her, Iachimo returns to Italy and uses both the bracelet and knowledge of the details of Imogen’s bedchamber, to convince Posthumus that he won the bet. Posthumus, furious, sends a letter to his servant, Pisanio, in Britain, ordering him to murder Imogen. Pisanio, believing in Imogen’s innocence, gets her to disguise herself as a boy and get to Posthumus while he would report to him that Imogen was dead.  On the run, Imogen becomes lost in the wilds of Wales, where she meets Belarius, a wrongfully banished nobleman, and his sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. Unbeknownst to them, both were actually Cymbeline’s sons. They would later come to the aid of Imogen and to the aid of Britain against the Romans. The audience first meets Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus as their “father”, instructs them on the nuances of a calm life while climbing a mountain. Belarius states: Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; / Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats. Consider, / When you above perceive me like a crow, / That it is place which lessens and sets off; / And you may then revolve what tales I have told you / Of courts, of princes, of the tricks in war: / This service is not service, so being done, / But being so allow’d: to apprehend thus, / Draws us a profit from all things we see; / And often, to our comfort, shall we find / The sharded beetle in a safer hold / Than is the full-wing’d eagle. O, this life / Is nobler than attending for a cheque, / Richer than doing nothing for a bauble, / Prouder than rustling in unpaid-for silk: / Such gain the cap of him that makes ’em fine, / Yet keeps his book uncross’d: no life to ours. These words, which may appear somewhat cryptic to modern readers, essentially explain that maintaining a balanced, rational view is the best way of examine a situation and will allow for a rational analysis of it. In each foreign and national security policy issue examined here, evidence indicates Trump made shrewd, empathetic considerations as he acted. His judgments were made with circumspection, considering what precedes and what follows, are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he developed his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measured what might be lost versus what might be gained in both the short-term and the long-term. When moving to make changes in the status quo, Trump typically assessed the situation before him much as a half-back in US football searches for openings in the line that may allow him to breakthrough and do some open field running. Trump has also exuded a confidence on the world stage. Trump knows where he is and what he is doing, and a good portion of the US public, watching him work, feels assured that everything will be alright. Presenting oneself as confident and assured in itself is an art of leaders. When taking risks one naturally feels risk. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte explained of himself: “There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with a child. Once I had made up my mind, everything is forgotten except what leads to success.”

In each case presented here, Trump, in seeking to manage and influence the actions of other national leaders, was allowed the freedom to act in his own way, and unshackled by what administration officials might call the limitations of an international institution managing some collective action under its auspices. Countries that would like to work effectively outside of international institutions should feign nothing, and make a wholehearted effort at it. As Trump continues to evolve as US President, other national leaders are provided with an example on how they might approach foreign and national security policy decision making for their own countries. Perhaps most leaders would have small interest in the ministrations of greatcharlie on this matter. Of course, there are rarely situations that arise that are so uniform in nature that lessons from one leader would allow a cookie cutter approach to resolving them. However, smart people are able to find solutions to problems. If national leaders would like to work outside of international institutions more frequently, new more thoughtful and empathetic perspectives must be allowed to arrive in their thinking on their diplomacy with other countries.

Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than Ever to Historic Nuclear Deal: Putin Has Learned Much from This Process

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center) with Russian Federation Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (right). Through Russia’s participation in the Iran Talks, Putin learned much about decision making among the Western powers from the inside and likely feels better able to deal with them diplomatically and militarily.

According to an April 27, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than ever to Historic Nuclear Deal,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the 191 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at conference at the UN that the P5+1 was very near to a deal with Iran that would end a 12-year-old stand-off.   Kerry was quoted as saying on April 27th, “We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer.” He stated further, “If finalized and implemented, [an agreement] will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed exclusively peaceful.” Yet, despite progress made, Kerry emphasized “the hard work is far from over and some key issues remain unresolved.”

Such sober comments underlining the considerable amount of negotiating still required to reach a final nuclear deal have come as a reality check for many following the April 2, 2015 announcements by parties to the talks, with flourish, that parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program were agreed upon. The appearance of reaching a nuclear deal was as potent as actually reaching a final concordance for some. This was particularly true in Iran where ordinary citizens celebrated in the streets after the framework nuclear deal was reached. Public reaction within P5+1 nations was imperceptible. However, there was a significant reaction among foreign and defense policy analysts and others interested in the talks. Their comments were kind of lush, a bit soupy. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association declared, “The parameters agreed upon by the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany with the Islamic Republic of Iran promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies affirmed, “[T]he proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement over time . . . It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund proclaimed, “The agreement does three things. It blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. It imposes tough inspections to catch Iran should it try to break out, sneak out or creep out of the deal. And it keeps our coalition united to enforce the deal. Under this deal, Iran has agreed to rip out two-thirds of its centrifuges and cut its stockpile of uranium gas by 97 percent. It will not be able to make any uranium or plutonium for a bomb. Many of the restrictions in the agreement continue for 25 years and some . . . last forever.”

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.) Every step toward a final deal has brought US President Barack Obama closer to the legacy-defining foreign policy achievement he has sought. Obama’s desire to establish his legacy during his second term office has been a subject regularly discussed among White House officials and US political pundits. Yet, it is uncertain whether a final agreement can be reached and whether it would hold. The notion of how the P5+1, particularly the US, would likely respond to a violation of the treaty by Iran has gone through a transformation process during the negotiations. It was once understood that the US would inevitably decide to stop Iran from moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead by force of arms. Senior Obama administration foreign and defense policy officials made it clear that military intervention was “on the table.” Threats of regime change and of imposing a US form of democracy on Iran by the administration of US President George W. Bush were still ringing in Iranian leaders’ ears when the Iran Talks began. The idea of being attacked by the US became engrained in the psyche of Iran’s leadership, offsetting any idea Obama lacked the will to take military action following the Syria gas attacks debacle. Tehran’s views have changed since then.

Fas est et ab hoste doceri. (It is right to learn even from an enemy.) The P5+1 has served to present a united front to cope with the common danger of a nuclear armed Iran. However, the coalition has not been truly united. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has actually exploited the comity between Russia and its P5+1 partners to protect Russian interests. (The other P5+1 partners may very likely be aware of this.) Putin did not want the P5+1 to take military action against Iran, Russia’s strongest Middle East partner. During the Iran Talks, Russia and Iran made unilateral deals on matters from agriculture to weapon systems. The talks have helped Moscow better understand how Western powers approach issues as Iran’s nuclear program, making Russia better able to handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Russia, as Iran, is coping with Western economic sanctions. Putin has heard many threats to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, through NATO. However, Putin responds to such threats with an enigmatic face. Putin has Russia on the march, seizing territory in a piecemeal fashion, but he undoubtedly has a sense of how far he can go. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin likely believes military action against a capable opponent is the last thing Western political leaders want. (It is the last thing he wants, too!) To that extent, he also likely believes that after he has acquired enough, he will be able to legitimize Russia’s acquisitions through talks.

Initial Russian Concerns about Possible US Military Strikes in Iran

As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to the nuclear negotiation was essential, but it was also rather extraordinary given its ties to Iran. Russia had a very positive, congenial relationship with Iran unlike Western states in the P5+1. Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the US through cooperation, synergy and actuating strategic potential capacities.” When the Iran Talks began, Russia was actually working closely with Iran in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Western members of the P5+1 opposed. However, despite Iran’s close business and economic ties or ongoing military cooperation with Russia, albeit limited, could not guarantee the US would refrain from moving against its strongest partner in the Middle East. For that reason, Putin likely had genuine concern that Iran would become a target of massive US military action if the Iran Talks did not succeed when they began. Putin had not forgotten that close cooperation between Russia and authorities in Tripoli and Damascus did not deter the Obama administration from promoting and supporting insurrection against them. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, multinational forces under NATO command went beyond imposing a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell and he was killed. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the Syria Opposition Movement which bloomed during the so-called Arab Spring. The removal of Assad and his regime was the Obama administration’s goal.

Moreover, before the Iran Talks began and during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about plans to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. According to a March 14, 2013 article in the Times of Israel, Obama explained that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in just over a year and diplomatic efforts have just less than that to halt Iran’s drive to the bomb. The Times of Israel determined Obama was intimating that if diplomatic efforts failed this year or early next year, the US would be forced to carry out military action against Iran. Obama also reportedly explained that he had been “crystal clear” that a nuclear-armed Iran was a “red-line,” and that the US was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with which it could threaten Israel or trigger a regional arms race. In a September 15, 2013 article in the Guardian, Obama sought to shore up the potency of US deterrence against Iran warning that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, which he described as “much closer to our core interests” than Syria’s chemical weapons. A February 26, 2014, Reuters article reported Kerry told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action. Kerry also left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks broke down. The Reuters article further explained that when Obama stated all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, he was using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.

During the talks, urgency was placed on having Iran allow rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place to ensure any movement toward a nuclear weapon would be detected and the West could intervene. If Iran could be kept from moving close to a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond militarily to its existence.

Western Allies Prefer Sanctions Over US-Led Military Action

As the nuclear negotiations progressed, it became more apparent to Putin and Russian foreign and defense policy officials that despite their insecurities about US intentions, the threat of military action was a fiction. Russia’s European counterparts in the P5+1 coalition began expressing doubts about the willingness of the US to use military force against Iran. The French were perhaps the first to publicly appraise Obama as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to outline what he thought were the reasons for Obama’s tack in a 2013 speech. He stated: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must be given a chance, but she also said “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” Merkel’s statement diverged considerably from those of Obama and Kerry who indicated a US readiness to act militarily if negotiations failed. The reluctance of Germany to support US military action sent a message to Russia that there was no unity in the West on it. Sanctions remain the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the talks failed. Only the US can effectively act with force against a nuclear capable Iran, but Obama would never want to go it alone against Iran.

In sessions leading to April 2, 2015, urgency was placed on having Iran agree to keep rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place not just throughout the long duration of the agreement but even after the core limits of the agreement expire. That would ensure any movement toward nuclear weapons will be detected and providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There was an apparent belief that if Iran was kept from moving secretly toward a nuclear bomb, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond to its existence. As long as Obama was uncertain military action would achieve all objectives based on his concepts, Putin could imagine Obama refusing to go to war.

Israeli F-16 jets flying in formation. US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s diplomatic reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She explained “the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” For Putin, Sherman’s words ended all guessing on US intentions with Iran.

Military Action Is Sidelined

Ultra vires! (Beyond ones powers!) Guessing over US intentions ended when Putin and his foreign and defense policy officials heard US officials confirm that in which Moscow could not be certain. On April 13, 2015, Haaretz reported US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”

Even the tone in the US Congress softened. Congress drafted a bill that would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it is completed. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner stated “Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal.” He explained further, “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.” The focus of most observers was the fact that the bill would halt the lifting of sanctions pending a thirty day Congressional review, and culminates in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of sanctions imposed by Congress in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Actually, if Congress rejects the final agreement, Obama could still veto its legislation. It would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail. However, what was most important about the bill for Putin was that Congress accepted more sanctions as means to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not war.

Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and likely views that as a weakness. Putin undoubtedly wants to find ways to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term.

Reality Check Concerning Putin

Unlike the diverse group of cabinet-level officials and policy makers and analysts that advise Obama, Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes his US counterpart wants to be an honest broker. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and operates under the notion that issues in foreign affairs can be resolved at the negotiating table. Given that, Putin and his advisers undoubtedly view Obama in a way akin to renowned United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “boneless wonder.” Putin very likely hopes to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term. Putin and Obama are very different men. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and internal chaos of the 1990s, Putin restored order in Russia by reestablishing the power of the state some might say with little regard for human and political rights. Putin’s style of management was shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are referred to as siloviki (power men). At the pinnacle were those who came from a community of families in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg whose “roots” go back to first political police of the Communist Party known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He went to schools and a university Chekisty (Chekist) community progeny typically attended.

Chekists 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 on Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As Putin has noted in public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. In a March 18, 2014 speech, Putin enumerated some actions taken by the West that have fostered his contempt. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally.

Paradoxically, the aggressive behavior Putin attributes to the US has been displayed by him time and again. In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In November 2014, Putin signed a Russia-Abkhazia Treaty of Alliance and Integration which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the separatist republic. In March 2015, Putin signed the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration which has similar terms. Georgia has no chance of regaining its territories. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort a deal Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. When the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea. Such moves legitimize NATO’s worries.

Putin’s uncongenial attitude toward the West was very apparent while the Iran Talks were still underway. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers (as the one shown above) in US and European airspace prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russia also sold its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.

Lessons Learned Through the Iran Talks Putin May Be Applying

This uncongenial attitude Putin has harbored toward the West was apparent during the Iran Talks. Perhaps he was testing his P5+1 partners. In August 2014, Russia signed a deal with Iran that undermined Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisaged wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar deal between Moscow and Tehran, the so-called oil-for-goods contract. In addition to that contract, there was the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran. The S-300 would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran. That would remain the case until the Israeli Air Force receives F-35 fighters from the US. Only the US Air Force’s small fleet of B-2 stealth bombers would have a chance of hitting Iranian targets properly now. If the US and Europe repeatedly threaten and levy sanctions, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps. Sensing his back is up against the wall, and unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further Western action by making extraordinary threats to use Russian military power. The Russian Ambassador to Denmark threatened that the Danes would become a target of Russian nuclear weapons if they participated in any missile defense program. Danish jets scrambled 58 times in 2014 to head off Russian aircraft. Russian strategic nuclear bombers also conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and intelligence-gathering jets in US and European airspace have prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russian military aircraft have been flying without transponders over Europe close to civilian aircraft. Putin warned Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. Russia has moved Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.

An April 18, 2015 Reuters article stated Putin recently softened his anti-US rhetoric only a week after accusing the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” Putin reportedly said on April 18th, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” He then stated, “I mean general efforts directed at making the world economy more democratic, measured, and bilateral, so that the world order is more democratic. We have a common agenda.” Similarly, the BBC reported that on March 6, 2014, after seizing Crimea, Putin told Obama by telephone that US-Russian “relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.” Regarding Crimea, Putin said Russia could not “ignore calls for help and acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law.” Given Obama’s record on the use of force, and what Russia observed during the Iran Talks, Putin may have calculated he has pushed hard enough, and he now can reap a negotiated resolution from Obama. Perhaps Putin assessed that as with Iran, talks might provide him with the chance to achieve many objectives.

The Way Forward

Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) The decay of Europe’s defense came as a result of a lack of commitment of the European countries, and to an extent the US, to the stewardship of NATO, militarily. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that did not face an apparent threat. There was no change in thinking despite Putin’s aggressive stance and actions against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” To surmount the impact of what the Western capitals were seeing, they ignored what they saw, made massive military cuts, and failed to meet their military commitments to NATO.

Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis! (Not for you, not for me, but for us!) Meetings between NATO allies can no longer simply amount to rhetorical conversations about collective security in Europe, pledges to do more, and proposals to rearrange the meager military resources currently available to face the vast, mobile, hard-hitting Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Decisions must be made now on what will done in the face of a confrontation with Russia over future aggressive moves against Ukraine or any other sovereign state in Europe. Too many ambiguous political speeches and statements on US military power have already been made to create doubt over whether the US might respond at all. There must be clear discussions on a mutually acceptable political rationale for military action, despite its difficulties and horrors, must be established between the US and the Europe. US and European leaders must confirm now what they will commit and exactly how they will act together militarily. In a manner loud enough for Putin to hear, Obama, in particular, must continually confirm at the UN, in NATO, and in its members’ respective capitals that Europe can count on US support if a military confrontation becomes imminent.

Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting “Terrorism” Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus; But Animus and Past Blunders of Powers Propel the Three-Way War!

The Syrian Air Force fighter jet, above, is bombing a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Ironically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the goal of “saving” his country from the Syrian opposition movement, destroyed nearly every major city and town in it. After four years of conflict, US policy, instead of forcing Assad from power, has resulted in a three-way war with no end in sight.

According to a January 28, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting ‘Terrorism’ Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian opposition movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. While expectations of a breakthrough at the January 28th Moscow meeting were low, Russia hoped the talks would give impetus to a long-stalled peace process in the four year conflict. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.” However, the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime are more interested in fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic militant groups. Their mutual animus was also evinced when both sides failed to commit to the peace plan of UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that seeks to establish local fighting freezes throughout Syria. The fighting freezes would allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to be delivered.

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then candidate Senator Barack Obama admonished the administration of George W. Bush for engaging in military adventurism under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. Yet, early on, the administration of President Barack Obama found itself unable to yield to the temptation of responding to some clarion call to cleanse the world of all ancient evils, ancient ills. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the opposition which blossomed during the so-called Arab Spring. However, its commitment to the opposition has proven to be a snare and quite unsatisfying. The US public has become inured to perfunctory ramblings from administration officials that typically descend into specious statements about victory being attainable. Now those officials speak about Syria with enigmatic faces on. They do not register despair, but they are likely internalizing plenty of it over their long-unproductive Syria policy. The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration. In an August 18, 2011 written statement, Obama said “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” However, after established a purpose, no genuine effort was made to achieve that purpose. The Obama administration’s actions indicated a lack of commitment to Syria.   Its approach was inchoate. A number of formulaic protocols for assisting such movements were followed. There was never any intimation among officials that change was near. Rather, the Obama administration displayed a lack of situational awareness.

The Obama administration was remiss on many aspects of the Syria case. When success is possible, waiting with patience and fortitude, is reasonable. The record on Syria makes questionable any decision to wait any longer to achieve success taking the same course of action. Experienced eyes have grown weary over time waiting for some declaration of triumph, signs of progress, or the proposal of a genuine solution. Looking back at the approach on Syria with “young (alert) eyes” shows its true course and reveals much of the “failure” has been self-inflicted. The Syria policy should take a new turn. Some regrettable but necessary choices need to be made. Conscientia mille testes! (Moral self-knowledge equals a thousand witnesses!)

Going-in with the Syrian Opposition Movement: The First Mistake?

The spiral toward war began in 2011 with protests for reforms and for a halt to violence against prisoners held by the Assad regime. It erupted into armed conflict. There were attempts to stem the violence with referendum on single party rule, but there was little confidence in the regime’s promises in the ever-growing opposition. By the end of summer, the SNC was formed in Istanbul as the main organization of the opposition. The SNC called for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and rejected dialogue. Meanwhile, another organization that formed, the National Coordination Committee, supported talks with the regime believing that bringing down the regime would lead to further chaos and conflict. These organizations included political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, mostly divided along intellectual, ethnic, and sectarian lines. In December 2011, the organizations were finally “united” against the Assad regime by agreement. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was cobbled together in 2011 with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Its FSA was placed under the military-wing of the opposition, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), commanded by Salim Idriss. FSA’s ranks quickly grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination among the mixed-bag of FSA units. The units did not admire or obey civilian opposition leaders. Groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra progressively functioned more independently.  Oddly, Western governments monitoring the situation closely saw no danger. Rather, they began to examine the SNC and SMC as the core of a new political and military leadership in Syria. States such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia even began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. After UN and Arab League joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, failed in his effort to create a ceasefire, more states, the US included, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA.  International military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League. However, Assad was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and an expansion of the Syria monitoring mission was proposed. Assad rejected these proposals, but SNC and SMC rejected them also. In the midst of a considerable international response in their favor, SNC and SMC members argued over policies and approaches. Arguments became a regular feature of opposition meetings.  Yet, the shortcomings of the opposition had no discernible impact on international supporters. Conferences held by the US, EU, and Arab states to decide how to aid them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Even further, in a Geneva meeting, a UN communiqué was drawn up that agreed to the creation of a transitional government and what it would look like. It would include members of the opposition and former members of the regime based on consent. The US demanded that Assad not be allowed a place in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West in direct support of the opposition. It was believed within the Obama administration that Assad would simply fall away. Officials expressed statements such as: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” Yet, that delusion did not touch reality at any point. Western analyses that evenly matched FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces were wrong. The situation was always tilted in Assad’s favor. Culpa lata! (Gross negligence!)

The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched

The FSA’s size, relative to Assad’s forces was meager. It was not organized for decisive action, lacked real military power, possessing no high-tech or heavy weapons, and was unable to march on Damascus to remove Assad. The Syrian Army had considerable size, strength, and capabilities. At the civil war’s outset, the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared Syrian Army forces stood at 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analyses, taking into consideration the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and paramilitaries/street gangs (shabiha), the number rose near 200,000. The combat power of that force has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, further enhanced the force. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians were ready to fight alongside the Syrian Army, and did so at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah alleges it went into Syria from Lebanon with 4,000 fighters once Iran began to commit forces. In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July 2013, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with varied support from Russia and Iran, would capture major FSA strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO concluded that during the spring, the FSA’s military campaign had failed.  A dramatic deterioration of the FSA’s Syrian component reportedly began in April 2013. The point was reached where it was difficult to distinguish who wanted to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  More importantly, NATO claimed then that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  The majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters of Islamic militant groups, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.  NATO’s assessment impacted the decision by leading NATO countries to suspend lethal weapons shipments for the FSA.  In mid-July, the United Kingdom and France, once the most vocal supporters for arming the FSA, signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria fearing the shipments might end up with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.  De fumo in flammam! (Out of the smoke, into the flame!)

The February 2013 photo of Homs, Syria, above, provides a snapshot of the destruction that exists in Syria’s cities and towns. The Syria of 2011, when the civil war began, no longer exists. No matter who in control Syria whenever peace comes, they will face a colossal reconstruction effort of astronomical cost.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed

On March 21, 2013, it was revealed to the New York Times that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was playing a covert role in the air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria. A former US official confirmed in anonymity that in early 2012, CIA Director, General David H. Petraeus, was instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and urged various countries to work together on it. Many journalists in 2012 had heard rumors about CIA’s activities.  The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but expanded into a steady and much heavier flow.  By the end of that year, it included more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. By facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, CIA was supposed to provide the US a degree of influence over the process. From offices at secret locations, CIA case officers helped the Arab states shop for weapons. Saudi Arabia acquired a large number of infantry weapons from Croatia. CIA tried to vet FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrived. CIA was tasked to steer weapons away from Islamic militant groups, persuading donors to withhold weapons that could have severe consequences if they fell into their hands. Those weapons included portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. Yet, CIA relied on Turkey to handle the majority of oversight activities for the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey was very large. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments.  CIA, itself, declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. Further, information on CIA’s Syria operation was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26, 2013.  According to the June 26th article, in addition to moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses, CIA was engaged in a train and equip program for small groups of vetted, mainstream, FSA fighters. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. At the time, it was hoped that the supplies, related training of a few hundred of the FSA fighters, along with a push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, would allow the FSA to organize a unified offensive in August 2013 which was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui! (Beware what you say, when, and to whom!)

Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS

As the civil war in Syria got underway, the US and EU involvement was very low-key.  However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan since 2012, enthusiastically delivered arms and support to the FSA.  The Arab states that participated in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, were emboldened by its success.  Officials in many Arab states suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya.  Qatar, which took the “lead Arab role” in the Libya operation, threw its financial wherewithal into supporting the opposition and take the lead Arab role in Syria, too.  It rushed to develop loyal networks with the FSA and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime.  Yet, acquiring the “loyal support” of FSA units was a very difficult undertaking.  Many groups in the FSA, particularly Islamic militant groups, moved from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms.  Qatar, much as other Arab states pursuing their own interests, had a myopic view of the Syria landscape.  They lacked experience in strategic maneuvering at a level required to positively influence events in Syria.

For Arab states, engaging in an effort to arm the FSA without a secure, steady supply of arms meant scouring around for light weapons such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, and ammunition.  Qatar bought arms in Libya and Eastern European countries and flew them to Turkey as part of the FSA arms supply program set up by CIA.  In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver the arms into Syria. Qatari unconventional warfare units were tasked to go into Syria and find factions to arm and supply, but Qatar also received assistance from Turkey in identifying recipients for a short while. Qatar’s distribution of arms aligned with the tide-turning FSA campaign in the northern province of Idlib and the campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts that drove Assad forces from parts of the countryside. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the FSA supply hub at Qusayr.  Qatar eventually turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support, leading to its ties with the Farouq brigades.  It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to a rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization.  The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to further divisions within the political and military wings of the opposition.  There would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. By September 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were creating separate military alliances and structures.  It was then that the two countries were urged by the US to bring the parallel structures together under the SMC, but that did not occur.  Crce credemus, hodie nihil! (Tomorrow we believe, but not today!)

This photo of Islamic militant fighters in Syria preparing to execute Syrian Army prisoners appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 5, 2013. While Obama administration officials were predicting the Syrian opposition’s victory over the Assad regime, journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations were reporting ISIS atrocities and the realities on the ground.

ISIS Emerges

What has stirred the Obama administration the most about ISIS is the hostage taking and murders US citizens and citizens of other countries. The matter actually brought Syria back to the forefront among foreign policy issues. After failed effort to secure massive ransoms by negotiations, US and other European, Asian, and Arab states’ citizens have been videotaped being beheaded. The whole process seems to be more of an amusement for ISIS members than anything else, forcing leaders to negotiate prices for the release of their people. Rescues have been attempted, and they have failed more often than not. Then there was the ISIS juggernaut that rolled through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. That land was included in the Islamic Caliphate straddling the border of Syria and Iraq that ISIS created. ISIS did not always pose such a threat to global security and stability.   In early 2012, there were many Islamic militant groups active underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Western and Arab states allowed for their growth.  ISIS was initially active in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity.  In addition to being the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the FSA for the balance of the civil war, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra led FSA assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were also responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials.  They became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.

Despite the best efforts to minimize the impact such acts were having on their Syria policy, it was eventually accepted by Western and Arab states that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces were directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups only sought to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory. Indeed, before the Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of the large segments of Syria that ISIS and other Islamic militant groups’ controlled, the society was transformed by the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrians. The groups were particularly harsh with Syrian women. Journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations reported ISIS atrocities.  Captured Syrian military personnel and regime supporters were rarely spared. ISIS and the other groups were still viewed as FSA members until their intermittent clashes with mainstream units became open warfare.

While it was initially reasoned the FSA, with US supplied arms and training, would advance against the Assad regime and force him to the negotiation table where he would supposedly step down, the added pressure of the struggle with ISIS derailed the Syria effort of the Obama administration.  The administration, nonetheless, pressed this issue with US Congress. The Obama administration sent its senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill its tangled Syria policy with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of its “approach.” US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” however, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions. At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul further stated, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Although captivating and satisfying, Kerry’s figures even then seemed questionable. Using them, the administration took an approach that allowed the Syrian situation fall into a three-way conflict. Assistance continued to reach ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. SMC did not unify FSA units into a cohesive fighting force or devise plans for their effective use. Assad remained in power. Caveat consules ne quid detriment republica capiat! (Beware consuls that the commonwealth is not harmed!)

Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack

The story of Obama’s August 23, 2013 response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is well-known. After making very shrill accusations that the Assad regime had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renowned decision to back away from military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. Russia, Iran, and China were as joyful as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing his cause any good. True, Obama had the Pentagon provide options for calibrated military strikes in Syria. Airstrikes most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. However, Obama was driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through. Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed. Obama was paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled with his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Obama strayed away from a path of assertive and decisive action. Many challenging foreign policy problems facing the administration became more difficult to manage as a result of his decision. Opponents of the US, including ISIS, became convinced that Obama was averse to using military power. Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem! (It is not goodness to be better than the worst!)

In July 2012, the Za’atari refugee camp, above, opened in Jordan. Of the 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 20 percent are now housed in the Za’atari and Azraq camps. Syrians situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, or trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, desperately desire a sustainable and secure peace in their country.

The Way Forward

What Obama and other Western leaders should know by now is that in coping with ISIS, they are dealing with real evil. It must be defeated. From the start, leaders of ISIS as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been treated by the US as William Shakespeare’s “Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority.” They should have been made to shrivel under the weight of robust US military might. ISIS’ leaders instead were given the time, the space, and the resources to rehearse the implementation of their perverse notions of social order. The fight against ISIS is actually the result of the failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down at the negotiating table. A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been established with the opposition in the beginning of the civil war and still cannot be established with it now. Without support, the opposition might continue to fight the Assad regime, but its efforts would not be fruitful.   Similarly, the US effort to juggle three, albeit related, conflicts in Syria will never bear fruit. The Assad regime, the opposition, and ISIS, have each contributed to the destruction of the lives of the Syrian people. Assad is on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court. Given the choice to deny, attack or embrace the Assad regime, the US may choose reluctantly “to embrace (tolerate)” it incrementally. The war has transformed Syria, politically, militarily, economically, socially, and culturally. The Syria of 2011 no longer exists. 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 and secure peace in their country, would be the best solution. Ad verecundiam! (Appeal to modesty in an argument!)

Assad is not immortal. His regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, may not survive in the long-run. Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran may eventually grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancement of their cause. To the extent that Assad would face heavy battles with ISIS, the watchful eyes of Israel, and the prospect of a decades-long, very expensive, reconstruction effort wherever he is able to regain territory, his regime will be contained. More so than the opposition, the Assad regime can contribute to the fight against ISIS in Syria. Contact with Assad regarding ISIS may kindle genuine cooperation from him on other issues. Assad stated contact already exists on US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria via Iraqi officials. Perhaps that is the best way for the Obama administration to handle the situation considering the primacy the US must give to, and role it must play in, the ISIS fight.

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 NBCNews.com 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 greatcharlie.com 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.

Assessment

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.

Book Review: Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014)

Robert Ames did not join the Central Intelligence Agency in 1960 with a plan to go to the Middle East, a region that had already stirred his interest. Yet, it was the best place for him. Ames’ own positive approach toward individuals and his training and mentoring coalesced magnificently. He wanted to help the people of the region while promoting US interests.

In The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014), Kai Bird tells the story of the immense life of Robert Ames of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a “good spy,” Bird makes it clear that Ames is not a cliché of romantic US spy lore. He was indeed a unique individual. Bird deftly sheds light on his character and his brand of tradecraft in the clandestine profession. Regarding his “life and death,” Bird brilliantly details Ames life from birth on March 6, 1934 into humble beginnings of a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia to the moment he was killed at 49, in the April 18, 1983 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. He left behind a wife and six children. Looking back at Ames life, it is hard to imagine how Ames could have been happier, or could have been better suited for any job, anywhere other than with CIA in the Middle East. Ames accomplished much. Bird proffers a view held by Ames former colleagues that he ignited the Oslo Peace Process due to his close relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s intelligence and security chief. Bird believes, if Ames had lived, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Bird was never an US intelligence officer. He is a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Yet, Bird writes The Good Spy with incredible insight into the life of a case officer living in the Middle East. Perhaps his perspectives may have been enhanced by recall of his own experiences as the son of a US Foreign Service officer who was posted primarily in the region. Bird grew up in some impressive spots in the region to include: Jerusalem, Israel, Beirut, Lebanon; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Cairo, Egypt. Moreover, as an adolescent, Bird actually met Ames while his father was posted in Dhahran. Ames was using the official cover of a Foreign Service officer at the US consulate and for three years his family lived across the street from Bird’s home. In his research, Bird was able to interview more than forty officers, both clandestine officers and analysts from CIA’s operations and intelligence directorates were willing to share their memories of Ames. Interview of others were also conducted with relevant sources in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Ames` wife spoke with Bird and shared her small collection of photographs, correspondences, and a family scrapbook. Bird skillfully used those unique resources, making his biography a profound, edifying discussion of Ames and his career.

Ames loved God, his country, his family, and the Middle East. While some colleagues and managers were perhaps indifferent or often confused about the region, Ames spoke with vividness and a certain whimsy about it. He steeped himself in Arab culture and language and Islam enough to be called an Arabist and become a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the time of his death. Ames discovered in the field how to navigate through a myriad of situations and manage complex intertwinings in the region. Those skills were refined by experiences and by people willing to serve as his mentors and advisors. Bird provides readers with enough information to realize that long before he came to CIA, Ames was implanted with an ability to engage people in a natural way and establish genuine friendships. What was worthy about people he met, he tended to appreciate and embrace. He would shuck off what was not. He did not suffer fools lightly or conceit to evil. He could discern the wicked from the righteous. Unlike many he dealt with in the field and CIA, Ames, himself, engaged in what would be viewed as “moral behavior’; some might say he was boring. He rarely drank and avoided the distractions of the most intriguing and lively locales. This contrast with colleagues and foreign contacts is made apparent in The Good Spy, but its discussion does not come off as an exercise in moralism.

The Good Spy can be read at many levels. For example, it is a history of CIA activities in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. It can be viewed as an enhanced history of US diplomacy and the often mangled process of communication during that tempestuous period in the Middle East. It also can identified as a history that sheds clear and revealing light on the nature of US relations with Arab States. Indeed, The Good Spy contributes to the record of the US experience in the Middle East, but dozens of books have already been written on that topic. What makes The Good Spy most exciting is the story of the man, Robert Ames.

Bird shows that there were indications of Ames’ potential as an intelligence officer even from his earliest years. However, Bird also deftly shows how his interactions with certain individuals were significant enough to help Ames hone his capabilities and allow him to become something that he might not have been without them. Often those having such an influence on him were extremely impressive individuals in their own right. They availed Ames with treasure troves of knowledge and experience from which to learn. In addition to mentioning Ames was raised in the working-class Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, Ames and his two sisters, spent summer months on the New Jersey shore with their maternal grandparents, who made certain they knew their family history and that the children, themselves, were a part of that history. The children knew who they were and had a strong self-image. Their grandparents were Catholic just as their mother. Although their father was Methodist, they likely provided some spiritual grounding through Catholicism, too. There was a challenge to that self-image for Ames came after he joined the varsity basketball team at La Salle College along with his friend, Tommy Gola. In high school, Ames was a great player, and a tremendous athlete. He worked hard at perfecting his skills, and became his high school team’s leading scorer, but at La Salle, Ames never made the starting line-up. Meanwhile his friend Gola became the team’s star. The young Ames never reacted negatively. He took the situation with good humor, putting a good face on it. Nonetheless, skilled, ambitious, and competitive, the situation was very difficult. Playing basketball was important to Ames. He was proud to be on the 1954 NCAA Basketball Champion varsity team. The coach at La Salle could see that Ames deep down was disappointed, but he would not change the situation. For Ames, showing humility in such an unfavorable situation, made him more mature, stronger. Ames learned first-hand what it was like to be blocked from making full use of one’s capabilities. He knew what it was like to be the underdog. Ames also knew what it was like to not have the ear of anyone who could change his situation for the better. From this experience, Ames was able to be authentically sympathetic to others in the world who felt they were in a similar position.

Through his studies at La Salle, Ames sought to answer questions he had about the world. The school was run by the Christian Brothers. Ames was always open to new things, making him child-like to some degree, but not childish. He majored in sociology, and enhanced his course of study with classes in psychology, philosophy, as well as prelaw. Ames believed studying prelaw would help him secure a position as a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent. That was all put on hold when Ames was inducted into the military after college. He was assigned to the US Army Middle East Signals Communications Agency’s base at Kagnew Station in Ethiopia in 1956. From the base, the US intercepted the military and diplomatic communications of Egypt and other Arab states. Ames worked in a supply company that kept track of spare parts for transmitters and receivers. It was an introduction to the world of Intelligence for Ames. Moreover, it was an introduction to Catholicism and the Middle East. On the way to Kagnew, on stopovers in Tripoli, Libya and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he heard Arabic for the first time. Ames was struck by what he saw. As would be the norm, Ames did not frolic with his comrades in arms in the nearby town of Asmara. He exercised with weights, studied about the Middle East, religion, and learned Arabic. He spent enough time with the Catholic chaplain on base to choose to convert to Catholicism. He went on trips to the Holy Land, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock and walking through the Old City. He also visited Cairo, Egypt, and toured the Great Pyramids at Giza. Ames experiences compelled him to learn more about the Middle East and to study Arabic. After serving over two years in the Army, Ames let his parent know that as a career goal, he wanted to see the world and tried to enter the US Foreign Service but he failed to pass the examination. In the end, he settled on a career at CIA which hired him in 1960.

During the same year, Ames married Yvonne Blakely, the beautiful daughter of a Lutheran pastor and former career naval officer. That led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. His love for her was that strong. However, the Catholic Church was truly an important part of who Ames’ identity, and he arranged for his return to it. After completing his training in 1962, Ames was selected for service in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Plans—known today as the National Clandestine Service. Ames did not join CIA just to return to the Middle East. Ames also did not join CIA to engage in development work. Indeed, CIA was not then, and is not now, a humanitarian aid or charitable organization. Yet, when given the chance to work for the Agency, Ames apparently made the calculation that he could go to the Middle East, and make life better for the people in the region while ultimately serving US interests.

Ames first posting was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where he received encouragement from his boss, James Critchfield. Critchfield was a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA in World War II, and was known as an Agency “Baron” from the action oriented era of the 1950s. Yet, despite having that reputation, Critchfield wanted to end the cowboy culture and bring a greater degree of knowledge and sophistication to the Agency’s activities in the region. That included going back to basics of recruiting spies.

During his training Ames was taught how to recruit by the manual. Bird describes it as a subtle exercise in peeling away an individual’s loyalties and transferring them from one cause to another. Bird notes that recruitment happens rarely. It usually occurs when the recruiters can make it seem only natural and fitting that the target should be talking to the case officer. Invariably, according to Bird, the recruited spies want to be recruited. Most spies are walk-ins, meaning they volunteer to serve in some fashion. Otherwise a genuine recruitment happens through a long intellectual seduction. The case officer shows empathy and shares his heartfelt views of his target.   He invites him or her to dinner and eventually offers something, even innocuous material rewards. When the opportunity presents itself, the case officer asked the target to sign on as a knowing agent with a written agreement. While the recruitment of sources would place a feather in the war bonnets of case officers, Ames would rather establish a relationship that could result in reliable source of accurate information that might be actionable.

Bird mentions that early on Ames caught the attention of Richard Helms, an OSS operations veteran. Helms was promoted to deputy director of Plans as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Helms believed the clandestine collection of secret intelligence by case officers was an important task and risky covert operations interfered with that work around the world. New means such as U-2 spy planes and the electronic surveillance of communications were being touted by some the wave of the future and replacements for the spy. When in contact with Ames, Helms impressed the need for human intelligence upon him. Helms, who would eventually become CIA director, thought very highly of Ames and supported his progress at CIA.

While Ames preferred to avoid the US corporate employees working in Dhahran, he managed to befriend Richard Metz, a veteran of both the OSS and the CIA. Metz and Ames would talk at length. Metz tutored Ames on the intricacies of tribal politics and helped Ames navigate in the region. He made Ames better able to work with the members of the royal family. Ames discovered that his efforts to learn about the region would pay off, together with being 6’3” handsome, being personable, and speaking fluent Arabic, Ames quickly gained a reputation wherever he went as being an American with whom one could talk. Metz showed Ames the invaluable skill of having fruitful conversations to strengthen connections with the Arabs in particular. Metz’s advice, along with his own experiences in Saudi Arabia, reinforced Ames view that good friendships with key players, and well as merchants in the suq and maintaining a positive reputation would be key to development of potential sources and contacts and the development and performance of his tradecraft in the region. Ames was always learning, and never became a victim of pride. He never indicated any sense of knowing it all.

An intriguing consideration about Ames’ approach to the people of the Middle East was the fact that at the same time when he was creating deep meaningful connections with Arabs he met in the 1960s, within his own country, there was significant racial discord. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a Civil Rights Movement, supported by Freedom Riders, and thousands of volunteers for marches and sit-ins, who struggled for an end the racial segregation and equal rights for all US citizens. There were no efforts made toward multiculturalism and diversity within CIA at that time. In CIA, Ames was one of the few special individuals who were not simply tolerant of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. He truly respected the people he encountered in the Middle East. It was very apparent. Ames often heard colleagues overseas use derogatory terms while discussing the Arabs. Bird writes that Ames was disappointed. even discouraged when he heard some of his managers express very intolerant, and indeed, racist views of the same people whose friendship he valued and the company in which he truly appreciated being.

There were two contacts that Ames developed which received considerable attention from Bird. Through the story of those contacts, Bird shed valuable light on the nature of Ames’ utilization of friends to collect vital information. One was Mustafa Zein, a young Shi’a Muslim, and successful business consultant to US and local firms, well-connected through the region, residing in Beirut. Zein was born in to some means and was educated not only in US schools in Beirut, but lived as an exchange student in Naperville, Illinois and graduated from the town’s North Central College run by the United Methodist Church. He had also been involved with the Organization of Arab Students. After Zein’s organization came in contact with the National Student Association, a organization funded by the CIA to help spot individuals for potential recruitment, Ames was eventually instructed to meet him. Ames scoured Zein’s file but knew understanding him in the abstract would not be as valuable actually interacting with him. Another CIA case officer in Dhahran set the meeting in motion by telling Zein to look up Ames the next time he was in Beirut. When they met in late 1969, Ames complimented Zein on being able to work with powerful figures. Zein expressed concerns about the US policy, the resulting Soviet progress in the region, and the plight of the Palestinians, and Ames listened closely. Ames thought Zein was ideal for recruitment, but Zein wanted no part of that. He did want to help, but, informally, in his own way. When he next saw Ames, Zein agreed to do things to advance relations between the US and the Arab people, but not for money. Zein also asked Ames that they pledge to be truthful to each other. For Ames, working with Zein professionally meant having an access agent, who could help spot and recruit other spies. However, Zein was much more than that for Ames. In addition to meeting intelligence requirements from headquarters, Zein’s knowledge of people and events, helping Ames keep a finger on the region’s pulse and support his continued learning process. Zein would introduce Ames to his second most important contact, Ali Hassan Salameh.

Salameh, a friend of Zein, was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, allowing him the ear of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and leader in Fatah’s Revolutionary Security Apparatus which he was nurturing into a rudimentary intelligence bureau for the PLO, later called Force 17. Salameh was quite cosmopolitan and living the lifestyle of a playboy, breaking many mores of the Arab World. Ames claimed that he was given instructions from US President Richard Nixon to create a line of communication to the PLO. He had Zein introduce him to Salameh. Ames believed the PLO should be encouraged to transform into a real political party, and wanted to support that effort. Salameh saw some benefit having an important channel to the US. Ames and Salameh, complete opposites, became friends. Professionally, each would be the most significant person in the others life. Salameh was an incredible source of information and insight for Ames. However, soon enough, Ames managers wanted to recruit Salameh, not to collect information, but to use him as a means to gain control of the PLO’s activities. Ames wanted no part of it. CIA sent another field agent to meet Salameh in Rome, using Zein’s help. The agent’s recruitment pitch made to Salameh was for him “to coordinate activities with your organization with our organization,” for $300,000 a month. In a meeting with the agent the next day, Zein, rejected the offer on behalf of Salameh who was present, in a unique way. He stated Salameh would accept his terms “to finance the PLO to the tune of $35 million a year—and recognize the PLO.” Zein also explained to the field agent that “He’s [Salameh] already sent a coded message to Arafat. The Chairman is very pleased.” The field agent hastily left the meeting place, and blamed Salameh for the failed recruitment pitch. The effort evoked negative responses from Zein and Salameh. They were insulted by it. Ames eventually managed to patch things up with both. A line of communication between CIA and the PLO was created through Salameh. It survived the years of chaos and conflict in the 1970s Middle East. Salameh would die violently in the region in 1979.

Before hearing of this book, many may have been completely unaware of Ames. Reading it, they will learn of his amazing life and his considerable achievements. They will also discover how much Ames valued others and his value to humanity. He lost his life in the Middle East, a land which to him was a great treasure. A man of integrity, Ames had a strong moral center, an abundance of goodwill, and always the best intentions. He made the best impression possible of himself and his country with everyone he met.

There is much, much more about Ames in this exciting book. Readers of greatcharlie.com are likely working through their summer reading lists. Hopefully, they will be able work The Good Spy in among their selections. Without using distortion or exaggeration, it is a book that will take the reader on a journey through the Middle East and halls of power in Washington, DC. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as humility and honor. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward which is an emphasis of greatcharlie.com’s commentaries. Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends The Good Spy to all.

By Mark Edmond Clark

While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!

Legendary Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, is directly responsible for Iran’s security in the Middle East beyond its borders. Events have conspired to put Suleimani in position to lead Iran in a struggle that could confirm it as the region’s dominant power.

According to a June 17, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Is Exploring Talks with Iran on Crisis in Iraq,” a senior US diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on June 16th to explore whether the US and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from an Islamic militant insurgency. More than a decade after the US invasion, fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and other insurgent groups, have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. Iraq appears to be collapsing. ISIS is the same group that helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. However, the FSA has not been truly successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while also fighting the Assad regime.

The reported meeting between the US and Iran on the Iraq matter took place after US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled in an interview on Yahoo! Newsthat the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq. The partnership seemed unlikely from the start given the US has called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and alleged it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, the Obama administration recognized that Iran’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable. The Obama administration’s approach to the ISIS crisis includes exploiting the situation to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a more intercommunal government, to include Sunnis and Kurds, in an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. Indeed, Obama has insisted that no American military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, made headway on the issue. It was agreed a session will be held in the Parliament in Baghdad to discuss establishing a new government, more representative of ethno-religious groups in Iraq. That seems risky given the situation. Certainly, an arrangement could be cobbled together quickly. Yet, a rushed effort may not serve Iraq’s long-term interests. It could be overcome by a decision by Iran to back hard-line Shi’a leaders. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Reportedly, Quds Force fighters recently went into Iraq, joining comrades already operating in country. There are concerns Suleimani has mobilized Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’a militia groups.

While Kerry, in his Yahoo! News interview, left the door open for military cooperation with Iran, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stepped the US back from it. Psaki stated that while there may be discussions about the political situation in Iraq, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.” She also said the Vienna meetings with Iran would not discuss “military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Less than three hours later, the Pentagon ruled out military coordination.

As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now over Iraq. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from groups such as ISIS, want to be assured that the US can still be relied upon. Force must be used to deal with ISIS. The Obama administration pledged that it will stand with the Iraqi people, much as it pledged to stand with the Syrian opposition, but it is unclear as to what will be seen from the US. It might act cautiously enough in response to ISIS as not to be truly effective at all in the endeavor. Perhaps an additional 21st century reality might emerge from this situation. When the US does not act, it may need to accept that other states with sufficient and effective capabilities will. Without reservations, Iran will act to secure its interests in Iraq. Conceivably, tacit cooperation with the US, as in Bosnia in 1995, and Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, might be acceptable among more moderate elements of the Iranian regime, However, going it alone would undoubtedly be the preferred option by the majority of Iran’s military and security officials and hardline political and religious leaders. If that occurs, the outcome in Iraq may not be shaped to the desires of the US in the long-run. If the US ever decides on military action, it may not need to consider how it might coordinate with Iran, but rather, whether it could act effectively militarily in the midst of unilateral a intervention by Iran.

Iran’s Response as a Regional Power

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already believed that Iran was gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East. Khamenei stated: “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated on September 20, 2013, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” Through bold and decisive actions, Iran has sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region. On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western state wile over using as a means to weaken the government in Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime. Iran has trained and equipped pro-Assad Syrian militiamen, and organized them into the National Defense Front. It has sent truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013. An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad. Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria. Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus. To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria. In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement. Trained mostly in Iran, some groups have carried out small-scale attacks on police.

Iranian leaders view Obama as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than in actions in which US participation would be very limited as in Libya. Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. To their surprise, Obama withdrew from Iraq as a result of a campaign promise rather than strategic considerations. The whole enterprise appeared wasteful. Suleimani on September 27, 2013 remarked: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace. The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.” Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq, but the door was also left open for the growth of Al-Qaeda there.

Saudi Arabia would be very displeased to see Iran take control over the situation in Iraq. Yet, if the US is hesitant on Iraq, in the midst of the Islamic militant thrust toward Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will likely be as well. The type of military commitment Saudi Arabia would need to make in Iraq would very likely require various forms of US support to maintain. Saudi Arabia has already had a hand in the matter regarding the supplying, arming, and training of Islamic militants running through the country.

Tehran likely heard Obama recently explain that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter. Accordingly, Obama explained the US has a stake in that. On June 12, 2014, Obama proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. He believes part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. In his view, over the last several years, trust and cooperation has not developed between moderate Sunni and Shi’a leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state. That weakeness, and then carries over into their military capacity. Accordingly, while support would be provided to the Iraqi military following consultations with the Iraqis, political change would also be sought. Obama stated, “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shi’a who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shi’a and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.” As leaders in Tehran would know that the talent to captivate through speeches is not the same as the talent to lead internationally. Public statements on Iraq have been satisfying enough for those who would not look more deeply, perhaps seeking simple answers. Yet, they conceal the reality that forcing together a sustainable, cooperative political arrangement in Iraq will prove difficult.

Tehran likely chuckled after hearing Obama emphasize multilateral action during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014. Obama explained “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He would later clarify this statement with reporters by explaining the US must take a more robust regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He further explained, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.”  Given the troubles of the US-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizing multinational operations in the future will be extremely difficult, especially during crises. Great Britain has already announced that it is not planning military intervention of any kind in Iraq. Indeed, unless there was some type of coordination with Iran, the US would have to act alone.

Tehran is probably not convinced of Obama’s capability to solve the crisis in Iraq given what they witnessed on Syria. On Syria, Obama appeared paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of decisive and assertive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. After accusing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the renowned decision not to take military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

How Iran Might Proceed in Iraq

Iraq will be a real test for Iran’s military and security services. It would be an opportunity to confirm Iran’s dominance in the region. Suleimani, who oversees Iran’s security interests in Iraq, is a legend among Shi’a in the region. On September 25, 2013, Baghdad Shi’a Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Qassir praised Suleimani. He stated, “If there is any fear in the Israelis’ hearts, Qassem Suleimani is its cause. If America has faced problems in the region, know that Qassem Suleimani is the cause; if any problems have been created for the House of Saud, know that Qassem Suleimani has had a hand in it. Therefore, know why they have implemented this war against Qassem Suleimani. Know that Qassem Suleimani is a spear that lands in Israel’s hearts and we are proud that there is a leader like him among the current global Shi’a leaders.” Khamenei based his vision for Iran’s role as the premier power in the Middle East on the capabilities of IRGC commanders as Suleimani given their virtue, faith, and obedience to him and respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful action plans.

National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and Member of the Iranian Parliament, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, on June 24, 2014, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, stating, “I do not deny this matter and of course do not confirm it, because I am not in a position to do so. But we are implementing [existing] agreements between Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq [that are] within the legal international framework.” He further stated, “If the Iraqi government formally requests aid from us, we will not hesitate and will aid our neighboring country within the legal international framework.” However, it would be logical for Iran’s intervention in Iraq to initially involve the Quds Force, and small numbers of IRGC combat units. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops, would increase intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.   By moving throughout Iraq, particularly ISIS held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links would be sought with Iraqi Army commanders and troops in the field to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Intelligence collected concerning ISIS that would be utilized in the development of an operational plan. Those MOIS and Quds Force personnel, along with other IRGC units, would also engage in direct combat with ISIS fighters, gaining a detailed knowledge of the battle lines. Iran would further train and equip Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and deploy some in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq.   Others will be deployed directly against ISIS. They would receive truckloads of arms and equipment. Supplies and other weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades would be flown into the Iraqi Army. Iran could possibly deploy Lebanese Hezbollah to join the fight.

Iran might soon after opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “If the legal government of Iraq and Mr. Maleki, as the primary representative of this government, (formally) request aid from Iran, as a neighboring and friendly country, we will aid him without any limitations.”  He went on to state, “For example, we can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi army that we have been able to provide the Syrian army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That might mean having great numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there. Aspects of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts. Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent. They would provide Iraqi and Iranian units with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by ISIS. Iran might deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units. Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support military movements and control of recaptured territory. Basij volunteers in Iran may be mobilized to serve in Iraq.

Tacit US-Iran Cooperation “a la Bosnia” Is Unlikely

In Bosnia, IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel operated successfully, working in concert the US and other states to airlift of arms supplies to the Muslim-Croat Federation’s Armija. Regarding the actions of ISIS in Iraq, Velayati, explained on June 19, 2014, explained: “Iran opposes extremism and America also opposes extremism. Thus, these two countries move in a parallel ‘direction’ but this does not mean cooperation between these countries.” He concluded, however, “I do not see an outlook for cooperation between these countries, because, in our assessments, they seek a sort of dominance in Iraq and in some other important and oil rich countries in the region.” Again speaking on behalf of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini rejected cooperation with the US stating, “The Americans want to be in Iraq next to Iran at any cost. As Iran is aware of the White House’s behind-the-scene plan, it will never be placed next to America.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kept the matter alive on the Iranian side, explaining Iran has not ruled out working with the US against ISIS in Iraq. On June 15th, he was quoted as saying, “We can think about it if we see America confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.” However, conspiracies abound in Iran on whether the US wants to stop ISIS. Khamenei has stated, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.”

Tehran has undoubtedly observed that the Obama administration already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq. It has been alleged to be the beginning of a phased approach. The US might also initially seek to shore up Iraqi forces with security assistance. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops. However, what resonates with Tehran is degree of uncertainty apparent in the administration’s reported reaction in Washington. Indeed, despite what has been done so far in Iraq, Obama’s White House advisers are now engrossed in a policy debate on airstrikes. National security officials have raised concerns over the ability to target roving bands of insurgents and degrade their fighting capabilities. Airstrikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen the crisis. Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people. Obama’s insisted on June 13th that if he decides to act, military action would be “targeted” and “precise,” reflecting his desire for a cautious path that avoids civilian casualties and prevents the US from being dragged back into Iraq. Obama has promised to “consult with Congress,” stopping short of saying he would put the issue to a vote. Congressional opposition to airstrikes in Syria contributed to Obama’s decision not attack.

By engaging in a lengthy discourse and considering gradual response in Iraq, US authorities appear relatively relaxed about events in Iraq compared to their counterparts in Iran. Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to include Suleimani, and hard-line political and religious leaders, realize that waiting could lead to tragic consequences. ISIS has begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives. Syria provides a template to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory. On June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.  Iranian military and security official know that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to prevent attacks against them. If attacks were launched, ISIS would follow through without hesitation with such threats. That is the sort of thing ISIS as terrorist group does. If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk. ISIS would certainly initiate attacks on Iran. They know ISIS will attempt to establish an Islamic state in captured territory whether it is sustainable or not.

Tehran knows US efforts to reform the Iraqi government will weaken Iran’s influence over Baghdad. On June 23, 2014, Khamenei explained, “In the Iraq situation Western dominance-seeking powers, specifically the regime of the United States of America, are seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.” He added, “The main goal from the recent events in Iraq is prohibiting this country’s people from the achievements that they have gained despite America’s lack of presence and interference. [Iraq’s] most important achievement is the rule of a democratic system.” He further explained, “America is discontent about the present trends in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections with the good participation of and the determination of trustworthy choices by the people. America is seeking Iraq’s domination and the rule of individuals obedient to America.”

For the Obama administration to believe that Iran would allow the reduction of its interests in Iraq without some response would be counterintuitive. Iran knows that the type of representative government that the US seeks cannot be designed on the fly and is an enormous request under the circumstances. The fact that Maliki ever came to power evinces the US inability to manage events politically in Iraq. As Velayati, on June 19, 2014, explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.”

The Way Forward?

Officials and advisers in the Obama administration likely came to terms before this crisis in Iraq that proposals for military action in Iraq would be the most difficult documents to put before the president. Any military action would need to be minimal, yet effective enough to achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, which is not easy plan. For this reason, Obama’s advisers had difficulty getting their president to rapidly come to terms with any proposals offered on Syria or Ukraine, consequently creating uncertainty globally over how the US would proceed.

Iraq seems to be unraveling and time is of the essence. Right across the border from Iraq, however, Iranian leaders see a great danger, and they are attending to it. The Iranians are not going to wait and see what the US does next. They want to stop ISIS. Yet, they want to protect their interests in Iraq by shaping the political situation in Baghdad in their favor. If they manage to do so, they can further Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region. Military and security officials may also gain a louder voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on the nuclear negotiations and other issues. Moreover, the failure of the US to act decisively and effectively in Iraq would eliminate fears within all quarters in Tehran that the US might take military action against Iran, a far greater enterprise than fighting ISIS. In the US, White House advisers are once again agonizing over a foreign policy decision. They, however, have wiled the idea that from the chaos, they can eke out the opportunity to put Tehran’s man out of power in Baghdad and create a new government. By attempting to absolve itself of the “unpleasantries” of exercising military power while claiming the title as the world’s leader, the Obama administration could cause the US to face another negative turn of fortune on foreign policy. Something significant militarily must be done immediately, even before the US induced process of reform is completed. If not, the Obama administration must be ready to accept the bitter scenario of the field in Iraq eventually being fully turned over to Iran.

US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War: Although the US Has Been Busy on Syria, Its Efforts Haven’t Been Fruitful

Uncertain of his future when the civil war began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (above) now feels confident enough to remain in office for another term.

According to a May 15, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War,” the administration of US President Barack Obama has sought to project a toughened posture in reaction to the fact that Syria peace prospects are collapsing.  Conducting military exercises with both air and ground forces in neighboring Jordan was one way used to project that posture.  The exercises were held in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan, which has long been regarded as a likely staging ground for any possible US military intervention in Syria.  That event took place as US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was making a visit to the Middle East.  Part of his itinerary included conferring with senior Jordanian political and military leaders.  Another way the Obama administration sought to project a “toughened posture” was having the US Treasury Department designate Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni, of Saudi Arabia, and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, of Iraq, both of whom are leaders of Syrian jihadist groups, as “global terrorists.”  They were also accused of exploiting the mayhem in Syria to advance the influence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.  This step by the Obama administration was meant to serve as warning to other members of the Western-backed insurgency fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that they should not have any dealings with Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.

These steps came a day after the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the chief UN diplomat assigned to mediate a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.  There was no immediate information provided on who might succeed him.  When news of Brahimi’s resignation came to light, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from allied European and Arab nations that support the moderate Syrian opposition were preparing to meet in London.  They were gathering without a clear plan for reviving a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.  It is estimated that 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began in March 2011.

Although the Obama administration might argue that it was getting tougher with the both parties in the Syrian conflict, the reality is those steps will not shape events on the ground in its favor.  The main stumbling block to achieving both Obama administration’s objectives in Syria has been Islamic militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.  Certainly, the US is in a position to do much more, especially militarily, on behalf of the Syrian opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization under which opposition groups fight.  Yet, that is not likely.  The Obama administration never guaranteed that it will stand with the Syrian opposition to that extent. What will likely be seen from the Obama administration is much more of its tame effort.  It will remain busy at allocating funds, providing equipment, and deploying some very capable intelligence and military personnel on Syria issue, but hold back enough as not to be truly invested or fruitful in the endeavor.  That will certainly be to Assad’s benefit.

US Diplomacy

General James Jones, former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration described the White House as being delinquent on Syria.  During the four years of civil war, the Obama administration: has backed away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; taken a dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; struggled to organize a string of talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, has engrossed itself in time consuming policy debate on the issue.

The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it appear to be in a hurry to achieve that goal.  In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  However, the Obama administration’s actions to date indicate a lack of commitment to that goal. Assad’s removal has not been established as part of a national security directive.  In fact, the US still recognizes the Assad regime, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.

The Syrian opposition, from which the leadership of Syria would ostensibly come in a transitional government, has many problems.  Its membership has not done anything to demonstrate the ability to take power in Syria.  They have not proven to be politically astute.  There is always some form of infighting underway.  It takes weeks for opposition groups to organize its meetings in Istanbul, which members often refuse to attend.  No serious effort to form a shadow government has been made by the US or Western powers.

The Obama administration has made public its efforts to support the FSA against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with arms and equipment and a moderate degree of training.  The Obama administration provided 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.  Cynics might say the Syria effort by the US, as well as the EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to simply hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  The Syrian opposition could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  Commanders and fighters have been very impatient with the Obama administration over the degree of its efforts.  They constantly point to the size and scope of efforts from the US and other Western benefactors as the cause for their lack of truly significant success against Assad’s 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 lack of military capabilities among the FSA units and their resulting inability to act decisively. In addition to their failure to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, mainstream FSA units have found themselves constantly under the attack of Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda.  Consequently, FSA efforts became split between fighting Assad and rogue Islamic militants.

Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing any good for his cause.  Besides, the whole matter provided Assad with the opportunity to be seen as the leader of Syria, implementing an agreement his regime reached with the major world powers.

The resignation of Brahimi as explained by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came as the result of a collective failure by parties to the conflict.  The secretary-general suggested Brahimi was overwhelmed by both the Syrian government’s inflexibility and the inability of the Security Council to take assertive action to support his efforts and alleviate civilian suffering.  All of that was topped off by Assad’s defiant announcement that he would seek a third seven-year term in elections held in June, in which his victory is considered assured.  Since the removal of Assad was considered key to allowing a transition of government to occur, his announcement to run for the presidency again resulted in the collapse of Brahimi’s peace efforts. Syria’s official news media welcomed Mr. Brahimi’s departure, accusing him of bias favoring Assad’s political opponents.  The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Bashar al-Jaafari, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN, as saying Brahimi had committed many errors, “including his interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”  However, only outside efforts, far beyond what he is already receiving, would Syria be able to cope with the Al Qaeda linked Islamic militants, a threat to the Assad’s regime more immediate than US military intervention: .

Islamic Militant Groups

The current size and strength of Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda would cease their struggle under any peace agreement with the Assad regime.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, rogue Islamic militant groups seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Indeed, in towns and villages of the rather large segments of Syria that they control, rogue Islamic militant groups have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on their inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens.  Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters.

Such atrocities have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media.  A rift between that foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, once surfaced as Syrians of Al-Nusra grew angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  It was reports of horrific acts by ISIS against Syrian civilians that led Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce ISIS’ activities as being too extreme to tolerate.  With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies. Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that the FSA cannot contend with them alone.

Obama’s Military Option

Despite stating that the military option remains on the table and conducting military exercises in Jordan, it seems unlikely that Obama would ever give the order for military action in Syria, even against Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups.  As Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Ukraine and Iran, using political capital and vital resources now on Syria would hardly be in the cards.  Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context once the civil war began. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  Among those statements expressed by administration officials about Assad were: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!”

Obama’s thinking on military action today is most likely still guided by ideas he expressed in August 23, 2013, when he backed away from military action for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.  Obama recognized that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”  Obama did not indicate, even at that time, any intent to have US forces engaged in a long term action in Syria. Obama’s thinking was also influenced by his background as a legal scholar and his concerns over international law. Obama went on to explain that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response.  He went on to state, “You know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”  Further, Obama was concerned with what US interests truly were in Syria. While he admitted that there was some criticism and push for strong action by some Members of Congress at that time, Obama explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?”  With those words, Obama signaled that getting involved militarily in Syria was not in the long-term interests of the US.

The Way Forward?

In designating Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury responsible for sanctions enforcement, was quoted as stating the decision “sends a strong warning to the legitimate Syrian opposition and those who wish to support it” to avoid any dealings with them.  However, the degree of harm that will be caused to those individuals by impounding assets they have in US jurisdiction and banning any commercial contact with them by US citizens should be considered sensibly. Such steps will unlikely lead to tragic consequences for their groups.  There are a variety of other sources, known and perhaps some unknown to the US, their groups might continue to seek aid from in the future.  Interestingly, a few months before this step was taken, there was an idea discussed and acted upon by the Obama administration to negotiate with the Islamic militants.  This approach was non-starter.  It seemed questionable to think in 2014 that results could be achieved through formal talks with jihadists.  As was discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject rogue Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  As long as the rogue Islamic militants remain active in Syria, it will remain a state hampered by disunity and conflict.

The US effort in Syria hinges on how it responds to the Islamic militant presence.  The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on.  The administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy will not be advanced.  However, it seems the ship has already sailed on the use of force in Syria.  The Obama administration appears willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, never taking military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.  Perhaps in 2017, a new US administration might implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.