Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia: His Proposal Was Flawed, But His Thinking Is on Target

US President Donald Trump (above). Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, more creative in his approach. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and albeit, not viable under US law, appeared to be a product of his willingness to consider the full range of options. Moreover, as a confidence building measure, it may have had a positive impact on Putin.

According to a July 10, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia After Harsh Criticism”, US President Donald Trump, on July 10, 2017, backtracked on his push for a cyber security unit with Russia, tweeting that he did not think it could happen, hours after his proposal was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted. The New York Times article explained the idea was a political non-starter. It was immediately scorned by several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who questioned why the US would work with Russia after Moscow’s reported meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The episode over the proposal unfolded on July 9, 2017 after his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit. Trump emphasised that he raised allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election with Putin. Reuters reported on July 9, 2017 that Trump stated: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..” As an immediate response to Putin’s denials on the matter, Trump then proposed forming a cyber security unit. According to Reuters on July 9, 2017, Trump wrote in the actual tweet about the cyber security unit: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

When Trump broached the the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election and his discussion with Putin apparently became a bit scratchy. Putin’s denial of the facts presented most likely signalled to Trump that he would be engaged in a argument without end on the hacking. Trump had to either move away from the issue or move laterally on it in some way.  Surely, Trump did not want to abandon the matter. The proposal for a joint cyber security unit apparently stemmed from an intense discussion between Trump and Putin on how to remit Russian cyber warfare programs directed at the US and perhaps similar US programs aimed at Russia. It may have been the product of brainstorming by the two leaders. Trump’s proposal was never supposed to serve as a form retribution against Russia for its intrusions into the US democratic process. Surely, it was not created to be a final solution to the threat of hacking US election. Immediately after the bilateral meeting in Germany, it was revealed that forming such a joint cyber security unit with Russia was prohibited under US law. Yet, although creating an actual cyber security unit was out of bounds, the concept of bringing US and Russian cyber experts together in some way to talk about some cyber matters was not. Trump’s likely aim with the proposal was to create a situation in which US and Russian officials were talking about hacking. Ostensibly, those conversations would create goodwill, perhaps stimulate a more open discussion about the issue, and promote more fulsome, honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal certainly would have served as an effective confidence building measure.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an apologist as a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. That is not the intent here. The OED defines an analyst as someone who conducts analyses. Foreign policy analysts scrutinize facts and data and interpret them, often in different ways. Given what is publicly known about Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit, the analysis here explains that although flawed, it is the sort of unconventional product that can result from intense negotiations aimed at coping with a seemingly intractable issue. The troublesome issue in this case is Russia’s intrusions into the 2016 US Presidential Election with all of its considerable security and political implications. It is also explained here that Trump’s proposal reveals a bit about his negotiating style. Trump clearly becomes target-oriented in his talks, and will make smaller agreements to build his interlocutor’s trust in him. From congruences Trump discerns in his interlocutor’s thinking and his own, he will try to craft a mutually satisfying agreement that, of course, ensures he will get what he wants. At this stage, Trump is still trying to get answers from Russia about the election issue and mollify the anxieties of various constituencies in the US over the negotiations, while hard at work trying to improve relations with Russia. Using his skills and experience, he seems to be swimming in the right direction. Audacibus annue coeptis. (Look with favor upon a bold beginning.)

Over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials. Russian officials deny engaging in such operations.  Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence efforts.

Russian Cyber Attacks during the 2016 US Presidential Election

As it was discussed in the July 6, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled “Trump to Meet with Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia”, over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The Russian strategy is typically to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. That approach has been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability. If benefits from its use appear great enough, Moscow may want to risk additional attacks. Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them.

The report of the January 16, 2017 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence entitled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election” presents the best publicized assessment by the US Intelligence Community of the Russian cyber attack during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Russian operation to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated a marked escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of  Moscow’s longstanding desire and effort to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order. US Intelligence Community assesses that Putin, himself, ordered the influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency.  The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. The approach the Russia took to operation reportedly evolved over the course of the campaign given its understanding of the US electoral prospects of the two main candidates. The Intelligence Community concluded that once it appeared to Moscow that Clinton would likely win the election, the Russian operation began to focus more on undermining her future presidency. It was uncovered by Intelligence Community that the influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blended covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

The Intelligence Community has declared that much as its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections, using Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin. Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US were Presidential Election, including targets associated with both major US political parties, were conducted by Russian intelligence services. The Intelligence Community assessed with high confidence that the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data collected in cyber operations publicly, in exclusives to media outlets, and transmitted material to WikiLeaks. Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. US Department of Homeland Security assessments in the report explain that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying. The Russia’s state-run propaganda machine Russia Today contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.  The US Intelligence Community concluded that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its “Putin-ordered campaign” directed at the 2016 US Presidential Election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

Testifying before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on June21, 2017, Jeanette Manfra, the US Department of Homeland Security’s acting deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security revealed that 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. She explained that a small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. Manfra noted that the elections are resilient to hacking in part because they are decentralized and largely operated on the state and local level. Nevertheless, the hacking of state and local election databases in 2016 was more extensive than previously reported. According to Time, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information. Reportedly in Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s’ license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

According to the US Intelligence Community, 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. A small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. However, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information.  In Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Reaching Agreements: Easier Said than Done

Before the Trump-Putin bilateral meeting, what had been observed in diplomatic exchanges between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are also working together to resolve nagging issues that could serve to harm efforts to foster good relations. Such seemingly small steps helped to build confidence in both Washington and Moscow that the prospect for change was real, and it lead to the arrangement of a meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, fighting continues in Ukraine, and aerial and naval intrusions remain constant in skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all went well, there will certainly be more to follow.

All of that being stated, the successful formulation and execution of such small steps is a daunting in public. When Putin initially took power on January 1, 2000, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. After the period of a term away from the presidency during which he served as his country’s prime minister, Putin was reelected for a third term on March 4, 2012. He clased repeatedly with US President Barack Obama and seemed to act more aggressively. The Russian military move that stood out was the annexation of the Crimea.

The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of 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. Ulterius ne tende odiis. (Go no further down the road of hatred.)

Given the many years of geopolitical struggle, Putin was unconvinced congenial relations between Russia and the West could exist authentically. He believed the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. After Putin was reelected for a third term, he clashed repeatedly with US President Barack Obama. Putin became more aggressive; took more military action. After traveling a bumpy road with the Obama administration, Moscow hoped Trump’s approach to Russia in any direction would reflect the desire not just for new deals, but a new US-Russia relationship.

Trump’s Negotiating Style: It’s Similar to the “Harvard Way”

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) Given Trump’s gift for agile maneuver against opposite parties in negotiations and his ability to mask his approach, if he chooses to do so, his decisions cannot be forecasted with exactitude. Trump, a self-admitted master of the art of the deal.  His negotiating “tactics, techniques, procedures and methods” Trump appears to have used that were likely developed a tad via his graduate business education at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania along with heavy dose of experience gained after nearly five decades of business negotiations. His concepts appear similar to those promoted by Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation. Such concepts ostensibly guided him in his first “business meeting” with Putin. They include the following: promoting creativity by breaking problems into smaller components; by doing so, you can build a multi-issue business negotiation out of what might appear to be a single-issue deal; using multiple issues to make valuable tradeoffs and facilitate a good-faith negotiation; collecting important information by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers; impressing the other side with your flexibility by putting forth several different proposals at the same time; contemplate unconventional deal-structuring arrangements to bridge the gap between what the seller wants and what the buyer can afford; exploring a contingent contract to help overcome differences in beliefs about future events and outcomes; creating even more value in business negotiations by adding conditions to your deal such as “I’ll do X if you do Y”; and, engaging in “mind games” like brainstorming to facilitate creative problem solving and unexpected solutions.

Trump surely had high hopes before and during his meeting with Putin. He likely would argue then, and would argue now, that bold action, when appropriate, would be the very thing to turn situations around. Ideally, if big agreements were reached, they could help modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Yet, Trump is also pragmatic and recognizes that plans must fit circumstances and circumstances cannot be created or imagined to fit plans. Trump understood that there would likely need to be initial, relatively small steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. He would also seek to gauge actions and reactions of his interlocutor, Putin. If he discerned a positive way forward, his sense of possibility would broaden and he would open his mind up to more options. When Trump broached the issue of Russian cyber attacks and eventually presented his proposal, his goal was not to mollify Putin, but rather provide an opportunity for all sides to “clear the air” on the issue of Russia’s hacking of 2016 US Presidential Election but he was unable to receive anything other than denials. Trump is not happy about Russia’s interference with the 2016 Presidential Election both as a patriotic citizen and as a candidate in that election. He may not completely agree that Russia’s action greatly impacted his election victory, but he recognizes that the aesthetics of the intrusion over time could diminish his accomplishment in some minds, particularly among his supporters. Trump understood Putin would likely deny Russia had any connection to the election intrusion, but he undoubtedly believed it was worth a try to have him confirm what most in the US believe.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports of others’ observations and analyses about their respective interlocutors.

The ability of Trump in his negotiations with Putin, to restrain the expression of emotion, in this case anger, perhaps even rage, and not to publish to the world by changes of countenance those thoughts and feelings, was critical if relations were to move forward. To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to recreate oneself endlessly. Admitting errors, missteps, is a sign of maturity and wisdom. One evolves as a result of recognizing ones mistakes. The mature one has moved from the passive voice to the active voice–that is when one stops saying, “It got lost” and begins saying, “I lost it.” The bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin was a promising moment in relations between the US and Russia. In an advanced, mature way of thinking, a presidential way of thinking in 2017, Trump sought some temporary step on the issue of Russia’s intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election by taking into consideration the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. Trump understands the peace that can be achieved must be the focus. The focus must not be how much each side can destroy the other through cyber warfare but rather how to end cyber as a mutual threat. One cannot solve a problem with the same thinking one used when one created the problem. Mens sibi conscia recti. (A mind conscious of its own rectitude.)

The Flawed Cyber Proposal: A Telling Product of the Negotiation Process

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

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports that presented observations and analyses of others about their respective interlocutors. With specific regard to reciprocal confidence building, both leaders demonstrated that they could negotiate. Baker suggested that at the earliest stage, one could arrange a series small negotiations on issues that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably to assist in developing a dialogue. Baker explained that finding even a minor, common point of agreement, for example on the shape of the negotiating table, can serve to set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker (above). Six excellent building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that they worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. Included among them were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

Confidence Building Measures: In Brief

Perhaps the best definition for confidence building measures was provided by Simon Mason and Siegfried Matthias, in their seminal article, “Confidence Building Measures (CBMS) in Peace Processes” published in Managing Peace Processes: Process Related Questions. A Handbook for AU Practitioners, Volume 1 (African Union and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2013). They define confidence building measures as series of actions that are negotiated, agreed, and implemented by parties in a dispute in order to build confidence without specifically focusing on the root causes of the dispute.

Confidence building measures are designed to build confidence. Confidence is a psychological state, whereby actors make themselves vulnerable and ready to take risks based on the expectation of goodwill and positive behavior from a counterpart. Confidence building measures can prevent a dispute or larger problem from escalating even if the negotiating process is to be started in the short term. Preventing escalation has value in itself and may also allow the negotiation process to begin again later on. Mason and Matthias intriguingly note that confidence building measures can prevent parties from escalating even when there is a denial of any problems or tensions that could escalate. Successful negotiations require risk taking by the parties. That is why a minimum degree of confidence is needed for negotiations to even start. For negotiating parties, confidence building measures are attractive because they are seen as a low-cost and low-risk activities, since they can be implemented with limited resources and calculated risks. The negotiating parties, themselves, must craft confidence building measures to fit their specific case. If not, what is agreed to will not be owned by the parties, and will not serve to build trust. Confidence building measures must also be reciprocal in nature. One party should not feel that it is going out on a limb without the other also doing so. To assist in ensuring confidence is sustained and agreements are appropriately implemented, confidence building measures concerning communication should be put in place.

In an incremental approach to confidence building measures, a series of agreements are used to slowly tackle the more difficult core issues later on. Under this approach, confidence building measures become stepping stones or a pathway to greater agreements. Indeed, agreements on confidence building measures early on generally build trust and interest in negotiating more complex agreements at a later stage. In this sense, confidence building measures create opportunities for parties to collaborate on something that is not strategically important to them and, in so doing, build the trust needed to subsequently discuss important strategic issues. Confidence building measures pull parties away from the obstacle they are blocked on. Once confidence exists, it is then easier to address the obstacles. Mason and Matthias use the metaphor of steps of a ladder also highlights the incremental nature of building trust which takes time and an accumulation of small steps. That is referred to by some as the confidence building process.

Mason and Matthias caution parties negotiating confidence building measures that wider constituencies may view a negotiation process with suspicion before, during, and after negotiations, and may not be willing to accept deals made. Individuals from those constituencies typically will not be present at the negotiation or understand how agreements were arrived at. Plans for responding to the wider constituencies’ concerns must be considered. A mutual understanding that one party made need to break away from a confidence building measure must exist. An agreement could be negotiated that allows the parties an amount of time in which they could communicate to one another about the need to break away from a confidence building measure. Working together on such a matter in itself could build confidence, create some degree of trust.

US military personnel in Cyber Command (above). There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. However, the mere fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization for that, seems to have had a positive impact on Putin.

Even though Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit was flawed, the dialogue among US and Russian cyber experts that might have resulted from it could have helped to develop a mutual understanding about the harmful effects of cyber activities and potential consequences, to include proportional asymmetric responses. Experts from the US side in any hypothetical liaison team would have likely been very experienced, highly qualified US personnel from the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command, and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, the primary US agency most major cyber negotiations. They might have caused Russia to halt its cyber operations against the US by helping to establish a modus vivendi, or way both countries could live together while possessing this significant strategic capability. One could speculate even further that talks may have even resulted in the very near-term suspension of any cyber attacks underway, or a reduction in the intensity or tempo of such attacks that have been sourced to Russia and perhaps some that have not as yet been identified as such. Trump’s proposal, encouraging talks, although flawed legally, ideally could have inspired both countries to move forward toward a greater agreement.

A Bad Reaction

As it was explained earlier, wider constituencies represented by negotiating parties may view the process with suspicion. In that vein, political allies and adversaries alike in the US rejected Trump’s proposal for a joint cyber security unit. There was an immediate rebuff from several Republicans, who questioned why the US would work at all with Russia after Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, stated on the US Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press”: “It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close.” On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, immediately criticized Trump’s cyber proposal. Rubio wrote: “While reality and pragmatism requires that we engage Vladimir Putin, he will never be ally or reliable constructive partner.” He further stated: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-] Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.” US Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, recognized Trump’s desire to move forward with Russia. However , McCain further explained on the US Sunday morning talk show “Face the Nation”: “There has to be a price to pay.” McCain went on to state: “Vladimir Putin … got away with literally trying to change the outcome … of our election.” He also added: “There has been no penalty.” US Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Sunday morning program, “State of the Union”, that Russia could not be a credible partner in a cyber security unit. Schiff stated: “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Schiff added. A former US Secretary of Defense in the administration of US President Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, told CNN: “This is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. The purpose of the law is avoid providing Moscow with insight into US cyber capabilities. In the US, it has been long-believed that Moscow is averse to revealing any of its cyber capabilities.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas. For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that was set to begin on midday, July 9, 2017. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so.

Dumping the Cyber Security Unit Proposal

It was only hours after Trump’s proposal for the joint US-Russian cyber security unit was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted that he backtracked on it. He tweeted: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

Even without being implemented, the fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization to do so, may have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking. Putin can choose cautious cooperation or subterfuge, which many in foreign policy circles would call his penchant. In his dealings with Trump, it seems to some degree Putin has chosen cooperation. Indeed, it must be noted that Putin discussed Trump’s proposal and was apparently open to some type of interaction between cyber experts of both countries. Recall also that Trump initially tweeted that Putin entertained the proposal. As Putin has the final say on all foreign policy matters in Russia, he established that Russia at the moment has an interest in reaching an understanding on cyber. Trump’s July 7, 2017 cyber proposal is dead. However, as the process of building relations between the US and Russia, there is a real chance that a new, better crafted proposal on cyber, within bounds legally, may surface, perhaps even from Moscow. Only time will tell.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas  For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that started on midday, July 9, 2017. Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so. Tillerson announced some key understandings brokered in the meeting amounted to success. He explained: “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas and the violence, once we defeat ISIS.” Tillerson also said the US and Russia would “work together towards a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.”

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play, The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, while King Henry away from the throne, the Duke of York, urged by Warwick, sat on it. Just then, Henry arrives with followers. Henry tells York to step away, but York announces an alleged claim to the crown against the King’s hereditary possession. Henry convinces York to wait to be crowned after he dies. Henry’s nobles are astonished that he disinherited his own son. Queen Margaret arrives and is struck by the news. York, at home, is convinced by Richard’s sons Edward and Richard, and his follower Montague to take the throne right away. A war for succession ensues. After several horrific battles, the opposing sides massed for a final engagement. In Act V, Scene iv of the play, Margaret leading Henry’s supporters gives a final stirring speech, summoning courage and the fighting spirit. On the plains near Teaksbury she states: “Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms. What though the mast be now blown overboard, the cable broke, the holding-anchor lost and half our sailors swallow’d in the flood? Yet lives our pilot still. Is’t meet that he should leave the helm and like a fearful lad with tearful eyes add water to the sea and give more strength to that which hath too much, whiles, in his moan, the ship splits on the rock, which industry and courage might have saved? Ah, what a shame! Ah, what a fault were this!” As Trump engages in efforts to improve relations with Putin and Russia, his opponents and a few fellow Republicans seem to feel the US is staring into a dangerous, dark abyss. They place little faith in Trump, and no trust or hope in Putin. Conversely, Trump, in thinking about the potential for improving relations, likely conjures panoramic views of endless vistas. While Trump’s critics would associate the disturbing sound of a dissonant flute with Trump’s effort to rebuild relations with Russia, Trump seeks to create a harmony between the US and Russia that even Johann Sebastian Bach would find sublime. The entire matter seems to enthral him. He remains optimistic and is pushing ahead in the face of considerable obstacles, the majority of which are actually unrelated to his efforts with Putin.

Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, and more creative in his approach. Trump’s sense of possibilities was broadened. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and, albeit, not viable under US law, undoubtedly resulted from his willingness to consider the full range of options. As a confidence building measure, it may very well have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking without even being implemented.  Reports about the actual Trump-Putin meeting indicate both leaders had a good sense of one another’s positions but they also sought find out more about one another’s approaches. By doing so, both provided themselves with a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. Both were attentive to how the other perceived issues, no matter alien that view may have been to their own. They noticed patterns of behavior, some perhaps influenced by history and culture, and recognized political constraints the other faced. Both Trump and Putin tried to crawl into one another’s shoes. As time moves on, that effort may very well assist the two leaders in building a relations that will facilitate the building of ties between the US and Russia. Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis. (Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness.)

Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria, Focusing on Forces, But Strikes Could Be Further Calibrated to Meet Obama’s Goals

According to a September 5, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria with a Focus on Forces,” US President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria. The decision was reportedly in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action. The article states that to succeed in garnering support on Capitol Hill of military action in Syria, it will be necessary to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope. As explained in the article the worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference. Doubt within the Congress over US military action in Syria reflected doubt projected by the Obama administration in its handling of the issue.

While the US has the resources and capabilities to carry out calibrated strikes against the Assad regime, Obama displayed great difficulty in publicly articulating what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to do it, and how he would get things done. With his decision to defer military action until Congress voted on the matter, he opened himself up to an onslaught of criticism. If Obama had been better served by the White House staff, none of this would have occurred. The president should have been provided with options for an appropriate response to the chemical attacks. His effort to present his case for military action should have been far better organized. An examination is provided here of Obama’s drive for military action against the Assad regime for it chemical attacks on August 21st. An analysis of his public statements is made and those very statements are used as guidance to develop a plan for military action in Syria which meets Obama’s needs and would achieve his desired outcome. A transformational opportunity that may help the US find an advantage in reaching a secure and sustainable peace agreement in Syria is also part of the plan presented.

Obama’s “Distressed” Approach to Military Action in Syria

Through Obama’s initial statements, it was clear that military action would be taken in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Indeed, an attack seemed imminent. Obama wanted to take action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Yet, as time moved on, there was a palpable sense through his statements that Obama was not very confident about taking military action in Syria. Obama seemed uncertain and indecisive about the outcome and the potential to embroil the US and the region in a larger conflict. He also appeared greatly concerned with the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Through their blustering and posturing by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iranian military leaders regarding how aggressively they would respond to US military action, the validity of US intelligence on the chemical attacks, or Obama’s courage, they sought to exploit what they perceived as Obama’s insecurity and uncertainty over military action and its aftermath. Obama’s staff did not assist him in articulating a clear concept and intent for action based on his thinking. For several days, there was a rather sloppy, piecemeal presentation of ends, ways, and means to use military force in Syria without a clear indication of the Obama administration’s goals, except hitting Assad for using chemical weapons and deterring his regime from using them again. White House staff provided Obama a plan that provided something less than determined deterrence against further chemical use by Assad. The plan for action appeared more as some panicky pre-emption of additional attacks that have the US stumble into the Syrian civil war. It was a mere accommodation of the president’s needs on Syria and not a genuine effort to meet them. Explanations of the likelihood the US would achieve its goals, other likely outcomes, and how military action would fit into overall US strategy in the region were inaudible or lacking. Language Obama was presented to use in his public statements, plans he was provided, indicated that his staff was not truly in touch with Obama on Syria. They were only in touch with Obama to the extent that they tried to meet his desire to be transparent with the US public on the use of military force. However, in this case, allowing so much to be exposed before an appropriate response to the crisis was formulated did him a disservice.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. It would be unreasonable for him to make such a move. Yet, Obama’s use of the term “military action” was understood to mean “war” among many Members of Congress, US public, commentators, rivals, and his detractors. As an option, the use of military force by the US conjures an endless list of possibilities. The US Congress and public, in particular, fully recall the Bush administration’s ventures into Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, military intervention, while proffered by the Bush administration to be well considered, with specific causation, and specific goals, led to tragic losses of personnel and relatively meager results. There is concern that the US will find itself once again committed militarily overseas to greater extent than anticipated.

Interestingly, during the Cold War, when a balance of power was maintained and a modus vivendi was established to assure global peace and security, while the threat of nuclear conflict loomed, measured steps were more often used to respond to trespasses upon the interests of the US and its allies by the Soviet Union and its client states. Some have yet to be unclassified. While the chemical weapons attacks in Syria were very much apparent in the media, the plan for a US response of any type did not need to be publicized. It would have been best for Obama to have made it absolutely clear that the US would respond, but keep his response the how, when, and where of the response vague. The Congress could have been informed of the Obama’s plan for action in camera. Military action was not the only means the US had available to deliver a punitive response against Assad. If solitary engagement had been Obama’s choice, the matter might have been best handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency is already steeped in the Syria situation as the lead US agency coping with the training and arming of the Syrian rebels. The military would be brought in to the extent it could provide air assets and provide highly-trained special operations forces to conduct missions in support of the Agency’s plans.

Obama’s Concept and Intent for a Response

Guidance on Obama’s thinking could be gleaned in significant amounts from open-source reporting on the White House’s decision making on Syria. Much more was very likely made available in White House, meetings, memos, and other communications. It was quite discernible in a CNN interview aired on August 23, 2013, during which he discussed potential US response to what was then called an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Obama’s thinking on military action was guided by the idea that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Additionally, his thinking was clearly influenced by his background as a legal scholar, expressed concern about international law. Further, Obama was concerned with what US interests truly were in Syria. With regard to over-extending the military, 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 then, an intent to have US forces engaged in any long term action in Syria. With regard to being placed in a position to respond to the crossing of the “red line” he had described in 2012, on August 23rd Obama explained that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response. He went on to state, “You know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. 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.” While Obama admitted that there was some criticism and push for strong action by some Members of Congress at that time, he 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?” To that extent, Obama signaled that he was taking a cautious approach to the Syrian crisis. On a personal level, he thought through the potential dilemma intervening could create for the US during his administration and beyond.

These ideas do not contrast at all with his speech in the White House Rose Garden on August 31, 2013, the most recent expression of his concept and intent. In the more detailed and refined presentation of why and how he intended to proceed, Obama stated on the chemical attack in Syria: “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.” In his Rose Garden statement, Obama left no doubt that he intended to take military action against Syrian regime targets. His concept for the operation conducted by the US military was clearly outlined: This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out. In order to execute the operation, Obama explained that “Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.” Clearly, Obama’s intent is to limit the scope of the operation. It would be punitive in nature. In his Rose Garden statement, Obama in no way indicated that this military response to the chemical weapons attack would be part of any ongoing efforts to remove Assad or change the military balance in the field. US response to the chemical weapons attack is viewed by Obama as being separate from, and to the degree possible, unrelated to US efforts in support of Syrian opposition and hope through that effort alone to shift the balance to pressure Assad to negotiate an agreement for peaceful transition to a democratic form of government. However, an emphasis recently has been placed on the idea of degrading Assad’s forces in response to concerns of Republican Members of Congress that Obama’s military plans were not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad regime. There have been indications that a quid pro quo of increasing training and arms for the opposition forces in return for Members support of military action.

Military Plan of Attack So Far

Open source data provided by US officials to the New York Times revealed the goal of a US military strike against Syria, to “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons, has expanded. A new target list goes beyond the fifty or so major sites that were part of the original one developed with French forces before Obama delayed action to seek Congressional approval of his plan. The strikes would not be aimed at the chemical stockpiles themselves risking a potential catastrophe, but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. According to the September 5, 2013, New York Times article, military officials said Thursday. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the New York Times, stated that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals — air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons. Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military. The bulk of the American attack is still expected to be carried out by cruise missiles from Arleigh Burke-class destroyers within striking range of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship carries about three dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles, a low-flying, highly accurate weapon that can be launched from safe distances of up to about 1,000 miles. But military planners are now preparing options to include attacks from Air Force bombers, a development reported on September 5, 2013, by the Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon was initially planning to rely solely on cruise missiles. Bombers could carry scores more munitions, potentially permitting the United States to carry out more strikes if the first wave does not destroy the targets. Among the options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry air-launched cruise missiles; B-1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry satellite-guided bombs. The Navy in recent days has moved the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Syria. But Defense Department officials said Thursday that the USS Nimitz, and its squadrons of F-18 Super Hornet fighters, as well as three missile-toting destroyers in its battle group, are not likely to join any attack unless Syria launches major retaliatory strikes.

More Could Be Done to Give the President What He Wants

What Obama wanted from military action was defined attacks, limited in scope, and not an open-ended response. He did not want to include any ground troops in the operation. The attacks were to hold the Assad regime accountable by punishing regime elements and assets determined by the US to have been involved in the chemical weapons attacks, deter the regime from further chemical weapons use, and degrade its capacity to do so. True, the latest target list includes the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. However, that list could be refined using the intelligence collected on the chemical attacks, released in truncated form to the public on August 30, 2013.

Command and Control of the Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Attacks

US government states that it intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21st, and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. Additional information collected indicated that on the afternoon of August 21st, Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the twenty-four hour period after the attack, the US claims to have detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. There were indications of sustained shelling in the neighborhoods up until the morning of August 26th. There were follow-on communications confirming that the chemical attacks had occurred. Through intelligence, the Obama administration has indicated that it has identified those commanders who issued orders for the activation of chemical ordinance.

Those commanders and their most immediate subordinates who were unmistakably identified as being involved in the chemical attacks and those who most likely would have been aware of those activities, should be targeted for precision attacks. In line with Obama’s desire not to shift the military balance in the field with this particular punitive action, strikes should be calibrated to hit those individuals alone, not simply their headquarters. The goal is not to decapitate military command of Syrian forces altogether, but to strike them specifically for the chemical attack. Destroying headquarters might have the effect of degrading their units’ capability in the field affecting military balance. Field grade officers would be very likely be available to rise up to replace those leaders. The hope is that after witnessing precision attacks on their commanders, the new commanders would be unwilling to use chemical weapons in their military operations. Cutting that layer of leadership off the Syrian chain of command may have the positive collateral effect of weakening Russian and Iranian links, relationships with those commanders and allow new leaders to emerge and consider their own place and the future of the Syrian Armed Forces. Syrian officers of all branches do not want to find themselves in a situation similar to their Iraqi counterparts a decade ago when the Coalition National Authority disbanded the Iraqi Army.

Targeting the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21st chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, manages Syria’s chemical weapons program. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21st near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, to include using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.

Members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that provided combat service support for those units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes, not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but remove them from the equation in Syria and help destroy the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where rogue elements with the Syrian opposition forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Syrian Military Units That Utilized Chemical Weapons

Three days prior to the attack, the US collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams indicates that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately ninety, minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

US military strikes should hit those specific units and the systems identified as firing chemical weapons attacks in Syria. All those in Syria who are aware that those units were involved will realize the US is truly following all matters in Syria closely through technical means. Future attempts by officers and men of any other Syrian Army units to launch chemical attacks will also be monitored by the US and those involved will surely face the same consequences.

Assad

According to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program. A body of information has led the US to conclude that regime officials were witting of, and directing, the attack on August 21st. Obama has made it clear that he does not want to use this punitive attack to remove Assad from power. However, it would be meaningful to let Assad feel some consequences, “discomfort” for his regime’s actions. Rather than attack Assad, strikes could be launched to remind Assad of his vulnerability as a leader. A precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. That might require the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in their vicinity. However, if the destruction of power stations by airstrike or cruise missile strike can get that task done faster, and effectively, then attacks using those resources should be made. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger and the attack should not present or produce any possibility that harm might come to them, it should impact their daily lives. That calibrated attacks would literally bring the consequences of the chemical attack home to Assad. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity, their confines area space living space came as a result of not as a result of Assad’s effort to defend them but the use of chemical weapons. They may realize that greater consequences could come if Assad insists on further use of chemical weapons.

Maintaining the Military Balance in Syria While Taking Action Against Assad

The front page of the New York Times, on September 5, 2013, included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels. This horrific scene brings the home some grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad. Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups. The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Jabhat al-Nusra, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government. As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. US airstrikes and missile strikes against  Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra would if not destroy them, degrade or displace them to a degree as to take them out of the Syria equation. By purging rogue Islamic militants factions from the Syrian opposition, from Syria, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organization of its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and permit their combat power to be enhanced with better arms. As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition. Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them. Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low. The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe. As discussed in the August 27, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained 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. Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them. An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army. The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency. Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified. All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect. Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory. The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces. The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

The Door Opens to a New Opportunity in Syria

Relations between Russia and Iran with the US have been uncongenial. They have both supported the Syrian Armed Forces. Russian support has mainly taken the form of arms and supplies and rather vociferous support in the international community. Iran has provided Syrian Armed Forces with training, equipment, and Iranian troops as reinforcements. However, their support has never included attacks against specific elements of the Free Syrian Army with airpower, other deep strike assets, or raids. Such action has very likely been avoided as a result of concerns over likely US reprisals overt such action. Yet, perhaps in discussions with the Russians and the Iranians, the US could inform them that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are not part of the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army. Both states could be informed that US itself has undertaken an effort to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy, and attacks against those organizations would be made separate from any US activity concerning Syria. The US could also request assistance from Russia and Iran, including intelligence, in conjunction with US airstrikes and missile strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Russians might be particularly pleased for within the Kremlin there are concerns that Islamic militants who arrived in Syria from Dagestan might gain possession of a portion of Assad’s chemical weapons and use it in Russia.

Undoubtedly, hearing about US efforts to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Al-Nusra would likely surprise, yet please, the Russians and Iranians. If any cooperation on that effort could be established, there is a chance that step could be a basis on which a joint effort between those countries on Syria could be built. Mutual strength of US, Russia and Iran could shift from military or intelligence cooperation to a diplomatic effort. Advocating for their respective sides among parties to the conflict, they might be able to find an acceptable compromise. From that, a new peace effort on Syria could potentially be ignited. For Iran, such an effort would mean working with US and Russia, as an equal partner, and as a power player in its region. For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue its interests in Syria. For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in Iraq and placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government.

Assessment

For many members of the Assad regime, US military action against Syria will mean the end of life. The lives lost would be a severe consequence of their participation in the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. If all goes as Obama plans, the attacks, optimally calibrated, will have a sound educational effect on the Assad and other rogue leaders and deter them from future chemical weapons use. Ironically, in the calculus of Obama, the lives lost in the attacks will assure countless more lives would be saved from the scourge of chemical weapons. Given what Obama feels is at stake, failing to attack does not appear to be an option. Yet, there may be other opportunities created by the use of force in Syria. The opportunity exists for the US to support the Syrian opposition in the field and US Counter-terrorism policy by taking punitive action against those who have committed despicable acts against innocent Syrian civilians and Syrian Army conscripts. Rogue Islamic militant factions, affiliated with Al-Qaida, should be purged from the Free Syrian Army, Syrian opposition, and Syria.

For the Obama administration and the US Congress, supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime was viewed as a chance to pressure Assad to the negotiating table and influence a decision by him to accept a settlement by which he would step down. Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate them from the pressures placed on them by the rogue Islamic factions. The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip Syrian opposition members. In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition, supporting its interest as best as possible. US policy would be on track.

Through cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them. They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. Russia’s late decision to throw its support behind US Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-hand suggestion that Assad move Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile outside of Syria, or a determined point in Syria, and create a form of international custodianship of it until can be destroyed is being considered in the US. However, moving, guarding, and eventually destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile does not respond to Assad’s use of those weapons on August 21st, nor is it a real consequence for it. While the proposal would move Assad’s chemical weapons out of reach of Islamic militants, it does not resolve the issue of Islamic militants in Syria. Many of them are foreign fighters whose units behave as rogue elephants, stomping through Syria. They must be dealt with. By working together to cope with that issue, the US, Russia, and Iran might lay the ground work for real cooperation in finding a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, and perhaps beyond that.

White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, and Weighing Military Options

According to an August 24, 2013, Washington Post article entitled, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use, US Forces Toward Syria,” US President Barack Obama received a detailed review of requested options for the US and its international partners to use against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, if the fact-finding process concludes it engaged in deadly chemical warfare.  The White House was quoted as stating Obama discussed the situation in Syria with British Prime Minister David Cameron.  It was said to be Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the report that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by an alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb.  The Assad’s regime denies the claims.  It has warned the US against taking military action, stating such a step would “set the Middle East ablaze.”

The August 24th, Washington Post article also reported that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated that the Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria but declined to discuss specific force movements.  However, certain Defense Department officials, speaking under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ship movements publicly revealed that the US Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, but without immediate orders for any missile launch against Syria.  As the Washington Post article explained, the Navy warships in the Mediterranean were capable of a variety of military actions, to include launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011.  Hagel was also quoted as saying, “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options—whatever options the president might choose.”

While the chemical attack issue is urgent, and military action of some type is most likely, Obama’s national security team’s meeting on August 24th was perhaps similar to many others in which they discussed contingencies for Syria..  Options for intervention in Syria have been continuously considered at the highest-levels of the Pentagon since the civil war there began, and at times they have been outlined publicly.  Most recently, in a letter to Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, presented a concept and intent behind possible military action in Syria and its likely sequalae.  A month prior, in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey discussed the matter in greater detail, presenting options and their likely costs.  On the one hand, since Obama set a red-line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Assad’s regime has decided to cross it apparently more than once, US credibility is at stake.  Any military effort should have a sound educational impact on Assad and promote US credibility globally.  However, any military strikes against Syria should in some way promote US policy goals of supporting the opposition and prompting President Assad’s departure.  Perhaps military action at this juncture should not be limited attacks against the Assad’s regime.  Conceivably, it could include a covert effort in support of mainstream elements against extremist, yet effective, Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria that are adverse to Syria’s transition to a democratic government.  Such an effort just might allow the US and its allies to stop treading water, shape events in Syria, and get their efforts moving forward.

Military Options Presented By the Pentagon

Dempsey’s letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, dated August 19, 2013, has been used by policy experts such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to glean insight into the Obama Administration’s thinking on military action in Syria.  The letter was written in response to a correspondence from the Congressman regarding the resources required and the risk of applying US military force against the Assad regime.  Dempsey explained “there were certainly actions short of tipping the balance of the conflict” in favor of the opposition that could “impose a cost on Assad’s regime for unacceptable behavior.”  Yet, he made it clear that using military force to change the balance “cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling the conflict.”  Dempsey expressed that the crisis in Syria was “tragic and complex.  He called it a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s role ends.”  To that extent, Dempsey noted, “The effectiveness of limited military options must be evaluated in this context.”

However, Dempsey’s letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, to which he referred in his letter to Congressman Engel, and which was reported on by Reuters on July 22, 2013, provided an unclassified assessment of the options for using U.S. military force in the Syrian conflict.  According to General Dempsey, the options provided, developed in consultation with the Joint Chiefs and the US Central Command, would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime.  Even at that time, Dempsey explained, “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

Dempsey went on to reveal that training, advising and assisting the opposition, which could include weapons training, tactical planning and intelligence and logistics assistance, would cost an estimated $500 million a year.  Limited stand-off strikes, using air and missile strikes to attack Syrian air defenses, military forces and command structure to damage the Assad government’s ability to wage war, Dempsey claimed, could cost a billion dollars a month and risk retaliatory strikes and civilian casualties.  Dempsey stated that establishing a no-fly zone would require hundreds of strike aircraft and support units. The cost could be a billion dollars a month and would risk the loss of US planes while potentially failing to reduce violence because Syria relies mainly on surface arms rather than air power.  Establishing buffer zones, Dempsey explained, would mean the use force to create and maintain safe zones inside Syria where the opposition could train and organize while being protected from attack by government forces. He stated the cost would be over a billion dollars a month and could improve opposition capabilities over time, but the zones, themselves, could become targets for Syrian attack.  Directly on the point of controlling chemical weapons, Dempsey stated that lethal force could be used to prevent proffer proliferation of chemical weapons and to destroy Syria’s “massive stockpile” of the weapons. However, at that time, he explained the option would require hundreds of aircraft as well as personnel on the ground and could cost over a billion dollars per month.  Clearly, these military options are not quick and easy and would dramatically increase US costs and risk of loss in Syria.  Yet, the guaranteed party to incur costs and loss will be the Assad’s regime. 

The US Military Can Still Act Decisively in Syria

Any attack on Assad’s forces whether to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles or degrade his command and control capabilities will have a significant impact on their capabilities.  In an effort not to shift the balance, the key would be not to act decisively against his forces.  During the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, supporting the movement of rebel forces with tactical support and attacks in depth, resulted in the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime.  During the 1995 NATO-led intervention in Bosnia, Operation Urgent Fury, decisive use of airpower and cruise missile strikes against Bosnian Serb forces around Sarajevo and throughout the country, facilitated the movement of Muslim and Croat forces of the Bosnian Federation.  Limiting strikes to a degree that will prevent them from having a decisive impact while being sufficient enough to achieve the desire effect upon the Assad forces will not be easy.  However, perhaps at this juncture, failing to act decisively in Syria, and that does not mean acting solely against Assad’s forces, would be a mistake.  What would be best effect of the military action in Syria would be to create opportunities for the US to pursue more than one political goal in Syria.

Islamic militant factions continue to impede US efforts to support the Free Syrian Army, the loose knit umbrella organization of around 1200 groups, which is the fighting force of the Syrian opposition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government.  Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, not necessarily the best of friends, may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes, however, the group would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Free Syrian Army units in a postwar Syria.  Further, Islamic militant factions, particularly ISIS, have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  

Purging rogue Islamic militants factions, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organize its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and let their combat power to be enhanced with better arms.  As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  In a July 20, 2013, the New York Times report, this view expressed by greatcharlie.com, was echoed by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.   Shedd pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic militant factions, noting that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.” He further stated, “The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger.”  Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. Shedd did not say how that could be accomplished.  

Likely Outcome of Purge

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them.  Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low.  The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe.  As discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained 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.  Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them.  An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.  The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency.  Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them.  Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified.  All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.

Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect.  Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory.  The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces.  The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

Assessment

If Assad has sought refuge in a bunker at some undisclosed location, he should not check out any time soon.  Military action of some type is certainly coming his way.  To have a sound educational impact on his regime, the US does not need to act decisively against Syrian forces.  True, as a result of an attack, the regime’s military capabilities will be greatly damaged, but those forces would still be able to fight.  Moreover, it is very likely that Russia and Iran would mitigate the effects of most damage, outside of replacing his chemical weapons capabilities and stockpiles, which would be in their interests.  Russia might replace destroyed and damages weapons systems and send in “civilian technicians” to to train Assad’s troops to use them.  Iran might go as far as to reinforce Assad’s forces in the field with additional Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps or Iranian Army units.  Moreover, It is possible that the full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies might finally be brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army in a large scale offensive, potentially overwhelming it.  That would certainly mean the end of the effort to promote a “gentler look” for Syria and its allies, evinced by arguments made by Russia, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war” and “provocations.”

While the US and its allies may still choose not to act decisively against Assad, it can seize this opportunity to act decisively in following with its policy goals in Syria by striking against rogue Islamic militant factions that effectively have thwarted its efforts.  (Striking against rogue Islamic militant factions in Syria may also meet US Counterterrorism policy goals, as Al-Qaida and its affiliates are still at war with the US.)  Foreign fighters attempting to go into Syria to join certain Islamic militant units may find them displaced, reduced, or destroyed.  That may have a sound educational impact on them.  Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate the Free Syrian Army freed from the pressures the rogue Islamic factions placed on the organization. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip its members.  The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced.  US policy would be on track.  In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition.  With civilian deaths well exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, the Syrian opposition must be allowed to get on with its task and end this conflict.  This is the moment to act.  Time is of the essence.