Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?

The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.

There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.

The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. 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. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.

The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)

The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US  forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.

US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.

There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.

Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.

The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.

The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)

As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the  commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.

There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)

The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.

If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.

The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!”  If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.

With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.

Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.

Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”

Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (left) with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (right). Putin wants to keep the Republic of Belarus within his country’s sphere of influence. Yet, due to regional security concerns, Belarus has gained new importance in the West. Lukashenko, once called Europe’s last dictator, is being approached by the EU and US. He has responded by trying to strengthen ties with them. Some Western analysts conclude Putin will not react well to this development. However, Belarus’s ties to the EU could actually enable its ally Russia to circumvent sanctions through a creative trade arrangement.

According to an October 29, 2016 article in the New York Times entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters,” dozens of demonstrators held a gathering in front of the headquarters building of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB in Minsk to commemorate the 1937 execution of over 100 members of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the orders of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin. The demonstrators also protested continuing repression in Belarus.  The demonstration was not authorized, however the police did not interfere. The annual commemoration provides the Belarusian public a rare opportunity to show disapproval for the government led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Nikolai Statkevich ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 Belarusian Presidential Election and was imprisoned for five years afterward. The New York Times article quoted him as stating: The fear of repression haunts Belarus as before. Today’s authorities are ideological heirs of those times.”

The EU and US now seem to be approaching Lukashenko with outstretched arms. Lukashenko, once the target of profound obloquy in the West and whose government was called “Europe’s last dictatorship” in 2005 by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is now covered with good words to the extent that his past iron fisted actions have nearly been cloaked. Belarus, in response to EU and US overtures, has engaged in a vigorous effort to curry favor and strengthen ties with them. The question of whether Lukashenko can genuinely recurvate westward after being oriented so long toward Russia has been responded to by some EU leaders with rather Delphine statements.

Putin wants Belarus to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence. He wants to keep Belarus in the Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Some Western foreign and defense policy analysts would quickly point out that Lukashenko has never been disposed to completely subordinating the interests of Belarus to that of Russia, or of the West for that matter. Pedictably, those Western analysts have concluded Putin, their bête noire, likely perceives Lukashenko as being disloyal, and suggest that he could react aggressively. Such analyses simply signal a fear of Russian military power. They also signal a fear that when the interests of any country in Russia’s sphere of interest is detectably at odds with those of the Kremlin, a “second Crimea” may be in the making. Crimea happened. Putin acted aggressively. However, Crimea should not be the baseline to gauge Putin’s thinking and actions going forward. Putin does not act impulsively; he acts with purpose. He can well-distinguish between what he wants for the moment and what he wants most. Putin does not want to have Russia defined as a rogue country with a military that is nothing more than an army of conquest. Having built solid relations with Minsk, especially with regard to security, for over a score of years, it is hard to imagine Moscow attempting to militarily intimidate or actually attack Belarus over its contacts with the EU. Extrapolations perpetuating such notions are counterintuitive. In fact, Putin has hardly reacted. He may very well recognize some potential in his ally’s new EU contacts for Russia to circumvent economic sanctions via a creative trade arrangement.

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Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. When Putin took office, he viewed Russia’s relations with Belarus as unsatisfactory and improved them. Belarus’s strategic importance to Russia increased following regional events such as NATO’s creep into the post-Soviet space, and the “Color Revolutions.” Belarus and Russia have had a few political and economic rows. Still, the two countries are staunch allies.

Belarus: In Brief

The Republic of Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk. While the borders of Belarus were set at the end of World War II, they were shaped mostly when some territory of the Second Polish Republic was reintegrated into them after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During World War II, Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources. The Soviet Union redeveloped the republic in the post-war years. On July 27, 1990, the Parliament of the Belarus declared the republic’s sovereignty, and on August 25, 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared itself an independent country. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has served as the President of Belarus. His leadership was widely criticized in the West. Lukashenko perpetuated a number of Soviet-era policies, to include state ownership of large sections of the economy. For years, political opposition was violently suppressed. Elections in Belarus were declared rigged by the international community.  The country’s rating under The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index was the lowest in Europe until 2014. Freedom House assessed Belarus under Lukashenko as “not free.”  It was labelled “repressed” in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. In the Press Freedom Index for 2016 of Reporters Without Borders, it was ranked 157th out of 180 countries.

Belarus’s Ties to Russia

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly formed Russian Federation tried to control the post-Soviet space by creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991. However, Belarus, much as other republics in the CIS, began drifting away from Russia, which at that time was attempting to cultivate Western relations and save its broken economy. In the early 1990s, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was concerned that his country’s involvement with Belarus might put its bridge building efforts with the West at risk. Yet, while Russia was fixed on improving relations, Western capitals discerned Russia’s inability to act effectively. NATO began to expand east. Stung and threatened by what he perceived as an effort by the West to isolate it from the European environment by grabbing up Central and Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics, Yeltsin sought to improve ties with Belarus. Relations between the two countries became so congenial that in the mid-1990s, following Lukashenko’s rise to power, Yeltsin concluded Belarus would be an ideal candidate for integration with Russia. After signing the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Belarus, Yeltsin declared that “the two nations [had] shared a common historical experience over many centuries.” That, he explained, “created the basis for signing the treaty and other documents on deeper integration of our two countries. Among all CIS countries, Belarus has the greatest rights to such a relationship due to its geographical location, its contacts with Russia, our friendship and the progress of its reforms.” One year after April 2, 1996 when the integration process was launched, the Union of Belarus and Russia was established. It culminated with the founding of the Union State between Belarus and Russia on December 8, 1999. When Putin took office, he determined that the status of the relations with Belarus was unsatisfactory and criticized the Union State Treaty. He sought to put real content into it. He formulated a policy genuinely directed at realizing unification. His proposal was to complete unification either in a federation model which meant that Belarus would join the Russian Federation, or build a union which is similar to the EU. However, Belarus rejected those approaches and there was no change. Still, Putin did not abandon the idea of unification completely. The next goal became integration. The strategic importance of Belarus to Putin increased as a result of international events, to include. NATO’s activity in the post-Soviet space; the decision of many Eastern European countries to orient westward; a US plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland or the Czech Republic; and, the “Color Revolutions.”

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Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of Belarus’s purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Disagreements over profits and payments from the energy trade led to the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 row, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed Belarus owed Russia $200 million in gas arrears for that year. Belarus demanded transit fees owed by Russia. The matter was resolved and went away.

Considering that integration with Belarus would be costly, it is reported that Moscow sought to maximize gains from it. Its goals became to reduce the economic burden which Belarus laid on its economy, and to take over Belarus’s energy transit infrastructure. That tack spurred many of the political and economic rows. Among those conflicts was a disagreement that arose when Lukashenko accused Russia of offering a $500 million loan to Minsk on the condition that it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko angrily retorted that the position of Belarus was not for sale. Regarding the close military cooperation between Belarus and Russia, Lukashenko compared Belarus’s population of 10 million people as a human shield for Russia against the West. That service, he said, “was not free.” The Milk War erupted in July 2009 when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, explaining that they did not comply with new regulations. Belarus accused Russia of using the ban for political reasons, but Russia denied that. In a statement presented by his press service, Lukashenko lashed out, stating: “Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying . . . to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarusians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Lukashenko acted by refusing to attend the 2009 CSTO summit in Moscow. The CSTO, Putin’s counterweight to NATO, groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a security arrangement. Shortly afterward, Russia lifted the ban and Belarus resumed importing of dairy products to Russia. Additionally, there were the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 Gas War, a dispute arose over a claim by Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed that Belarus owed $200 million in Russia gas arrears for supplies it had used that year. Belarus then demanded transit fees owed by Russia. A resolution was found and the matter quietly went away.

The EEU is an economic integration bloc of post-Soviet republics. It succeeded the erstwhile Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in January 2015. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU later that year. The bloc coordinates policies of its member states in key industries. In that spirit of coordination, the argument between Belarus and Russia over the price of natural gas was resolved, although the two sides have apparently not yet reached a consensus on the scale of the price discount (if any) or the mechanism of its delivery to Belarus. Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of its purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Of Belarus’s overall exports, 39 percent is directed to Russia. Those imports from Belarus totaled only $10.4 billion. For the most part it sells Russia value-added goods in return. Aside from trucks and industrial machines, Belarus sells processed foods. A network of Belarusian grocery stores operates in major Russian cities.

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Above is an assembly line at the Minsk Motor Plant. Nearly a third of Belarus’s overall trade is with its second largest trading partner, the EU. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU has withdrawn trade preferences for Belarus, the potential to greatly expand trade exists.

The Strong Military Linkage Between Belarus and Russia

Although there have been some setbacks in the political and economic integration of Belarus and Russia, the military-integration process between them has been successful. Cooperation with Belarus fits snuggly within Putin’s vision for geopolitical order in the post–Cold War world. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine.

On February 14, 2013 at a conference entitled “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The impact of Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia is apparent. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. The Kremlin has accepted the threat assessment of the the Russian Federation General Staff. Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. To rehearse the defense against the West, Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, announced massive strategic military exercises Zapad 2017, scheduled to take place in September 2017. He said that the joint exercise, which would include Russian and Belarusian forces, will be the “main military event of 2017.” Further, the two countries armed forces will cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken.

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Belarus (shaded in green), Russia (shaded in violet), and their neighbors. Providing a glimpse of the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, on February 14, 2013, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, explained the depletion of oil, gas and other natural resources will become an ultimate world crisis by 2030. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade Russia from several directions to grab its land and resources. Lukashenko insists that Belarus will remain part of Russia’s defense.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria! (Where there is unity, there is victory.) To a great degree, Russian and Belarusian regional security approaches have been harmonized. Lukashenko has pledged that Belarus will be an integral part of the Russian Federation’s defense. Indeed, he has gone as far as to say that the army of Belarus, the modernization of which was nearly completed, was ready to defend Russia’s western border. According to RIA Novosti, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russian western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.” Lukashenko has referred to the Belarus population as 10 million human shields in the defense of Russia. Lukashenko further stated that the Belarusian Army will be able to show resistance to any aggressor.  Prior to those statements, Lukashenko told the Belarus Parliament that he would not allow the country’s opposition to depict Russia in the image of an enemy. Lukashenko declared to the Belarus Parliament: “The Russians are our brothers, with whom we have been living for a very long time.”

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Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left). Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. Shoigu announced that massive military exercises would be held by Russia and Belarus in 2017 to rehearse their joint defense against the West.

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine into law. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. It views Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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Belarusian troops (above). Following deliberations in Parliament, Lukashenko signed Belarus’s new military doctrine into law. The doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, but it is apparent that NATO is deemed the greatest military threat. Accordingly, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russia western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.”

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

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Belarusian special forces in training (above). In the new Belarusian military doctrine, emphasis is placed on trends associated with the development of the concept of “Color Revolutions,” and methods aimed at provoking internal conflicts to destabilize the country and violate its territorial integrity. A year ahead of the doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko directed his government to further develop special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems: elements best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations.

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. Officials there view Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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The EU welcomed Lukashenko’s desire to have Belarus play a constructive role in the region by hosting four-party peace negotiations on Ukraine, as well as his decision to maintain political distance from Russia over Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. EU ministers have encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They have held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Still, many wonder if Lukashenko’s efforts are authentic.

Minsk and Brussels: A Rapprochement?

Some experts have said that it was Lukashenko who began making overtures to the West following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, considerable economic troubles in Belarus, and a degree of instability in Eastern Europe. He managed to grab the attention oF EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. EU governments, claiming that they based their decision on content and merit of Lukashenko’s efforts, suspended sanctions on Belarus’s leaders in October 2014. In February 2015, EU foreign ministers terminated sanctions, removing asset freezes and travel bans on 170 officials, including Lukashenko. Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist. The EU maintains an arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected of being involved in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s. Lukashenko responded by intensifying fence mending efforts with the West. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Their approach is bicameral. On the one hand, they seek to develop bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries. On the other hand, they want to develop cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernization, and visa issues. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].” EU and US delegations continue to visit Minsk, but results have been thin. The US has expressed hope not only for improved cooperation on trade, but also on non-proliferation and combating human trafficking.

Praetio prudentia praestat. (Prudence supplies a reward.) Commenting on Belarus, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, remarked, “This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture . . . but when we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the “beginnings” of a thaw with Belarus, and concluded, “It’s worth testing in such a situation how much willingness and reciprocity there is on the Belarus side.” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters, “This is an experiment.” He went on to state: “As a neighbor of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland.” While the EU leaders allege they had no intention of prying Belarus from Putin’s hand, that nonetheless was viewed as possible. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. Indeed, in a statement, the EU ministers encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Lukashenko will take what is offered, but what he really wants from EU countries is financial assistance. Belarus’s international reserves are at the lowest since 2011. Although there has been some direct private investment from the US in Belarus, its development has been relatively slow given the uncertain pace of reform. The US has encouraged Belarus to conclude and adhere to agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the program of macroeconomic stabilization and related reform measures. As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund is still deciding whether it should provide Belarus with a $3 billion, 10-year loan.

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Above are Russian “green men” in Ukraine. In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces, has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations.  Western analysts still insist that Belarus faces the threat of hybrid warfare from Russia. They conclude that Moscow will monitor Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any signs of a serious loosening of ties with Russia.

Are Problems Between Belarus and Russia Becoming Inexorable?

Ad connectendas amicitas, tenacissimum vinculum est morum similitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) At the Third Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions on June 9, 2016, Putin explained: “In a collaborative effort, Russia and Belarus work to deepen integration processes in Eurasia. As members of the Union State, we are carrying out about 40 programs and are jointly developing advanced technology programmes, primarily, for the aerospace industry, satellite navigation, geological exploration, and agriculture.” Putin further stated: “We are forming the Eurasian Economic Union’s common market for goods, services, capital, and labour, thereby facilitating sustainable economic growth of the member countries and enhancing the competitiveness of our producers on domestic and foreign markets.”  

Some interesting statements have been made by Belarusian officials concerning their country’s security relationship with Russia. There is the example of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov, who, speaking on February 23, 2016, stated that security of the country relied also on military cooperation not only with Russia and members of the CSTO. He also underlined Minsk’s “strategic” military cooperation with China and “aspiration to develop a constructive dialogue with NATO in order to strengthen international and regional security.” An interview of Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei with the Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, on October 17, 2016, has been called significant because it was titled “We Are Not Dependents of Russia.” In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations. When Shoigu announced that a “joint military organization of the Union State” would be created starting in 2016, including notional unification of the two countries’ armed forces, it appeared Belarus-Russia military ties were further strengthening. Yet, in the West, it was viewed by some analysts as a unilateral statement by Russia, and an effort to save face and show the world that the relationship was still intact. Western analysts note that there was no comment from Belarus on the joint military organization of the Union State. There is a perception in the West that Russia routinely announces joint initiatives with Belarus which have not been endorsed by Minsk. When an announcement of a joint air defence system was made in Russia, Belarus did not comment on it, at least publicly. Reportedly, that same week, Belarus TV broadcasted an extended feature on the country’s Air Defense Troops without once mentioning the new military agreement with Russia. Although the general in charge of the Belarusian Air Force has been nominated as the commander for the “joint system,” Western analysts saw the move simply as a face-saver for Minsk. The lack of reaction by Belarus was said to signal Minsk’s disapproval of the effort by Moscow to control the provision of its security. When Belarus needed to purchase modern fighter aircraft to upgrade its ageing air force, Moscow announced instead that Belarus would be hosting a Russian airbase. Western analysts insist that Moscow pressured Lukashenko for the airbase. However, he insisted upon and arranged the aircraft purchase.

Alter ipso amicus. (A friend is another self.) Some Western analysts have concluded that Russia will observe Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any serious threat to its ties. Yet, that idea conflicts with the reality that Putin considers Belarus to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space. Moscow has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. Lukashenko has no plans to have Belarus abandon Russia. If some drop in the strength of Belarus’s ties to Russia has occurred, it is negligible.From 2008 to 2010, Putin neither acted violently nor took a hostile tone toward what he perhaps regarded as a recalcitrant, yet typical Lukashenko, with his dalliance toward the West and he has no intentions of reacting aggressively toward Belarus now. Putin knows Lukashenko could never stand by wistfully in the face of Russian decisions impacting Belarus. Putin would never allow Russia to be directed by a foreign capital either. Clashing with Lukashenko is the last thing Putin would want. This may especially be true because Belarus might be able to provide Putin with the possibility to overcome EU sanctions related to Ukraine.

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Moldova, just as Belarus, is not subject to EU sanctions. Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has proposed that Moldova allow Russia to move its goods into a “European zone” in the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia as a way for Russia to circumvent EU imposed sanctions. As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have the its goods sold to the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions.

Putin’s Possible Move Regarding Belarus?

US and EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation will not go away unless Russia returns the region to Ukraine. Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev remarked at a press conference on November 11, 2016, “Our position is that sanctions will remain unchanged.” Just as the Baltic States were never recognized as part of the Soviet Union by the West. Crimea will always be recognized as part of Ukraine, not Russia. As it was explained in the September 30, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action,” Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and EEU countries.

As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have its goods sold in the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions. Much as with oil and gas pipelines, Belarus would essentially serve as a relay or refining point for Russian goods targeted for Western markets. For that to even become a possibility, it would certainly be in Russia’s interest to see Belarus improve its relations with the EU, particularly with regard to trade and investment. Belarus could be handsomely remunerated with percentages of profits made or perhaps with greater subsidies on imports of Russian resources. There are certainly limits to the level of Russian products Belarus could absorb for sale to the West. Resale of Russian goods at value added prices would murder the project. Russia certainly could not attempt to move goods into EU countries via Belarus at a level equal to anything it might achieve by trading with them directly. Moscow and Minsk would surely set parameters for the bilateral deal. However, the smallest level would surely be far more than Russia could sell as long as sanctions are in place. Trading an EEU partner’s goods externally in this manner may very well be covered in the economic bloc’s trade provisions. Beyond profit, benefits of this trade arrangement would include: the preservation of Belarus’ brotherly relationship with Russia; Lukashenko’s would have no need to be concerned that the sovereignty of Belarus and its interests were not being respected; and, collective arrangements with Russia such as EEU and CSTO will remain intact. Indeed, Belarus would remain in Russia’s sphere of interest. Note that Belarus is among the few states in Europe that has not asked for membership in the EU. While Belarus has strove for better contacts with EU lately, it has simultaneously sought to further its economic and political ties with Russia.

In many ways, this hypothetical trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia would resemble the creative arrangement Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin proposed for trade with Moldova. Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia and avoid restrictions. A trade arrangement of this type between Belarus and Russia would also resemble the Outward Processing Trade regime that the EU introduced for Belarus. That regime raised import quota amounts for textiles and clothing manufacturers within the EU thus allowing them to produce garments in Belarus that will return to the EU after processing. Additionally, the arrangement would resemble the somewhat awkward way in which some Belarusian firms have been relabelling food from EU countries and selling them in Russia thereby avoiding Russian sanctions. Probae est in segetem sunt deteriorem datae fruges, tamen ipsae suaptae enitent. (A good seed, planted even in poor soil, will bear rich fruit by its own nature.)

What Might Encourage Putin and Lukashenko to Take This Course?

What might encourage Lukashenko and Putin to seek this arrangement is the fact that after Russia, the main trading partner of Belarus is the EU. Nearly, a third of the country’s overall trade is with the EU. That trade could most likely be expanded with a nuanced cultivation. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU withdrew its trade preferences to Belarus under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences in 2007 in response to Belarus’ violations of the core principles of the International Labour Organization, exports from Belarus to the EU did not cease. The decision only required Belarus to pay import tariffs at the standard non-preferential rate. Trade was also promoted through the Outward Processing Trade regime,which was mentioned earlier.

Lukashenko stands on terrain high enough to survey the liabilities involved in moving closer to the West. Voices in the West have indicated that not all are impressed with Lukashenko’s positive words and a perceived unwarranted rapprochement to Belarus. Even when EU ministers decided to lift most sanctions against Belarus in 2015, they said concern remained “with the situation of human rights in Belarus.” Ministers called on Minsk to abolish the death penalty and implement Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) recommendations on democracy before the 2015 Belarusian Parliamentary Elections. An OSCE report said October’s election showed Belarus had a “considerable way go to” on democratic standards, noting the absence of safeguards against multiple voting, limited choice available to voters and the uneven playing field between Lukashenko and his political opponents. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus, Mikloś Haraszti, stated after the 2015 Belarusian Presidential Election that he had seen no changes in “the dismal human rights situation.” Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might inadvertently trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

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Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. However, Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician’s daughter, chooses to marry Bertram, a man of high social position in the French court, but he rejects her love. In response, Helena engages in a plot to wed Bertram by employing what has come to be known as the “Bed Trick.” As she begins to execute her plan in Act 3, Scene 7, Helena states: “Why, then tonight, Let us assay our plot: which, if it speed, Is wicked meaning in lawful act; Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact: But let’s about it.” A trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia as outlined here will likely cause discomfort for those who reasonably demand compliance with imposed sanctions. There is nothing inherently wrong with finding and exploiting a loophole in a regulation, business contract, or sanctions. One must have the will to seize the opportunity.

As the leader of a world power, Putin fully understands that his policies should make the Russian people hopeful for the future, not anxious or intimidated. Negative outlooks only advertise the limits one has. Reacting negatively to growing Euro-Belarus ties would not be useful. Inter-border cooperation has greatly assisted in harmonizing domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues between Belarus and Russia. Inter-border cooperation between Belarus and Russia, albeit from different perspectives, is a prerequisite for improving the relations of both countries with the EU. (The EU is drawing closer to Belarus due to the nature of its ties to Russia. Russia may move closer to Belarus to exploit its improved ties to the EU.) Belarus is already a priority for Russia’s diplomatic, military, political, and economic resources. If Putin senses that he can, with Lukashenko’s cooperation, exploit the rapprochement between the EU and Belarus to circumvent imposed sanctions, that tack could eventually be accepted by Moscow as a mechanism for coping with problems stemming from the divisions between EU and EEU countries. 

Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!

Putin is determined to host a “safe and secure” Olympic Games in Sochi.  Russian security officials are using every tool at their disposal, leaving nothing to chance.

According to a January 21, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call,” US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked over the telephone about how best to have a “safe and secure” 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, as well as efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Syria.  The article was based on a White House statement that gave few details about the telephone call.  However, in presenting the state of mind in Washington regarding  the Games, the Reuters article emphasized how US military and intelligence officials were spending a lot of time considering how the US could evacuate US citizens from the Sochi in case of a crisis.  It mentioned that the US State Department has issued a warning to US citizens planning to attend the Games, insisting that they remain vigilant about their security due to potential terrorist attacks.  Ostensibly, due to the threat of terrorism, Us officials are clearly view Sochi more in terms as a potential tragedy than as a premier sporting event. 

The threat to the Games that has caused US officials to express considerable concern in the media is an Islamic insurgency just over 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 includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, their Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  The Associated Press reported in a January 19, 2014 article that the Islamic militant group Vilayat Dagestan claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  Fearing a similar martyrdom operation, police in Sochi very recently have handed out fliers at area hotels warning of another woman they believe could be a terrorist and who may currently be in the city.  The flier asks workers to be on the lookout for Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, described as the widow of a member of a militant group from the Caucasus region.  The woman, according to the flier, may be involved in organizing “a terrorist act within the 2014 Olympic region.”   Photos of Ibragimova have flooded television and social media reports from Sochi. She is being called a “black widow,” which are female terrorists from Chechen separatist groups.  Many are wives of insurgents killed by Russian government forces.  The black widows have reportedly carried out a number of high profile suicide bombings.

US officials have been critical of the reaction of Russian authorities to the recent violence.  They claim that measures being taken may not be sufficient.  On ABCNews “This Week” in January 19, 2013, Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed concern about the preparations in Sochi, though he said he believed that “President Putin is taking this very seriously” and “taking all the precautions.”  In light of the recent deadly bombings by regional terrorist groups and the threats of additional attacks, McCaul said he thought that it was likely that attacks would occur somewhere in Russia during the Games.  McCaul stated that he would travel to Sochi to confer with security officials, in part to study their plans for evacuations in the event of an attack.  Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on the same Sunday program that US officials working with the Russians ahead of the Games had “found a departure of cooperation that is very concerning.”  Rogers, in a rebuff to Putin, stated with an estimated 15,000 US citizens planning to travel to Sochi for the Games, Russian security services should provide their “full cooperation.” 

As efforts to complete construction in Sochi before the Opening Ceremony on February 7th      continue, comments by US officials have built-up concern globally on whether the Olympic Games will be safe enough to participate in and visit.  Putin and Russian security officials likely have their own views on why US officials are adamant that attack will occur and Russia is not prepared, but they do not appear distracted by US criticism.  Russia is implementing a security plan formulated months before the Games and integrated into the overall approach to Russia’s security.  Russia has not been simply reacting to events.  Coordination with other nations may not be ideal, but circumstances beyond Sochi perhaps best account for that.  The threat of terrorism has become a concern in the planning of every major sporting event.  In the US, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were disrupted when two visitors were killed by a bomb set by a domestic terrorist.  Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years.  Russian counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism efforts to defeat any terrorist threats directed at Sochi appear very sound; nothing appears to have been left to chance.  In a January 19, 2014 press conference, Putin explained: “The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors.  We will do whatever it takes.”  Through it all, Putin also intends to keep the promise made to Russia in his New Year address in which he stated: “We will strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation.”  After the Olympics, it may be demonstrated that his considerable investment of resources to Sochi’s security greatly enhanced his ability to achieve that goal.

Defeating the Islamic Militant Threat to the Games

To guarantee for the Russian people that the Games will be a proud occasion, Putin has had his government put in place what officials and experts described as the most intensive security apparatus in the history of the event.  Russian law enforcement and other security services have promised to surround Sochi with a “ring of steel.”  According to Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, an expert on Russian security services, the security presence in Sochi was twice as large as that used during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, even though London’s population is more than 20 times that of Sochi.   As of this month, there have been reports that among the measures being taken for the Games, more than 5,500 video cameras will be in operation as part of the “Safe Sochi” policy. Of those, 309 will be manned by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).  The FSB has also had an outlay for their Plastun scout robots.  The devices are heavy with surveillance equipment: thermal imaging, cameras and devices that can detect a sniper’s scope.  Drones will be deployed, including the FSB’s Gorisont-Air S100, which can be easily weaponized.   The MVD has 421 Zala drones available.  The System of Operative Investigative Measures system (SORM) will be used to monitor spectators and athletes alike.  SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone telecommunications; SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic; SORM-3 gathers information from all forms of communication and has a storage facility. FSB has control centers connected directly to operators’ computer servers.  To monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an FSB agent only has to enter a command into the control center located  in the local FSB headquarters.  This system is allegedly duplicated across Russia.  In every Russian town, protected underground cables exist that connect the local FSB bureau with all Internet Service Providers and telecom providers in the region.  Electronic systems with far greater capabilities, concealed from the public, may also have been deployed to protect Sochi.  

Those technical capabilities are only part of preparations.  More than 50,000 security men will be on duty.  Most likely some of them will be in plain clothes, mingling with visitors.  There will likely be a greater security presence around certain teams and venues.  The regular forces have been augmented by a large deployment of Cossacks, the traditional horseback warriors who once patrolled Russia’s frontier, serving more recently in a public safety role in southern Russia. Several hundred have moved into the Olympic Village, joining the police on foot patrols and at checkpoints in their traditional uniforms.  Zones for population control will be established where bags, personal belongings, movements and credentials will be checked.  All visitors will need a Spectator Pass which they will acquire upon registering in Sochi. 

The response to the Volgograd attacks was part of the overall effort at securing the games. Immediately after those attacks, 4,000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind, ”  It was a display of what resources could be called upon and methods that could be used.  Russian MVD and FSB troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  Further, security services have taken the step of striking with special service units swiftly and covertly against suspected terrorist groups, “likely being monitored,” before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Strikes by special service units of the MVD and FSB, and perhaps the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), appear to be creating confusion and chaos within the leadership of the Islamic militant groups, leaving the groups rudderless and unable to resurrect themselves enough to direct any operations during the Olympic Games.  Raids against the leadership of Imarat Kavkaz reportedly resulted in the killing of Doku Umarov, the leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, who called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  Ramzan Kadyrov, the top Russian official in the Chechen Republic reported the information about Umarov’s death came from intercepted communications between other rebel leaders who were concentrated on finding his replacement.  The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source in Russian security agencies as saying they “can’t confirm Umarov’s death.”  However, additional messages posted on Chechen militant blog sites also suggested Umarov was killed in an operation by Russian special services troops.  (See greatcharlie.com on January 8, 2014 post entitled “Putin Vows to Annihilate the Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice.”)

Regarding Concerns About Cooperation

Security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may want to assist the Russians beyond liaising with officials, to include providing personnel and technical resources.  A contingent of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents and State Department security officials will be in Sochi to attend to the security of the American contingent.  Yet, there was never real hope or that there would be significant cooperation between Russia and other countries on Sochi .  The Russian security services have never been known for their transparency.  Nearly everything they do is kept confidential and compartmentalized within the services as well.  In an unusual move, in 2013, the FSB announced it was monitoring the movements of Russian nationals traveling to Syria.  Other monitoring activities of the Russian security services were evinced when it was revealed by the Boston Globe that the Russians had warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two ethnic Chechen brothers responsible for the terror bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, two years before the attack.  In the interview presented on the ABCNews Sunday morning program, “This Week” on January 19th, Putin, responding in part to concerns made by US officials over security preparations, explained if foreign athletes wanted to provide their own additional security, “there is nothing wrong with that,” as long as they coordinated with the Russian authorities. 

Yet, it is somewhat disingenuous for US officials to discuss coordination between the US and Russian intelligence and law enforcement services, even for the Olympic Games, without recognizing the problems that exist in the relationship.  There have been public displays of coordination on the Syrian chemical weapons removal, Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: disagreement on the reduction of nuclear force levels; Putin’s decision to allow National Securty Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and, most of all, the uncongenial personal relationship between Putin and Obama, resulting in the cancellation of last summer’s summit.  Further, there has always been a certain degree of mutual distrust between the US and Russian intelligence services, stemming from their Cold War rivalry and balanced through a modus vivendi in the field.  Sharing between organizations took a turn for the better after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but then fell back into difficulty.

Threats to the US homeland were the cause for coordination between Russia and US services after September 11, 2001, but the security for the Sochi Games involves the protection of the Russian homeland.  For the Russians, it is a matter of national interest and national pride.  The Russians feel they have the best handle on the situation in the South Caucasus. Their understanding comes from years of hands on experience with the Islamic militant groups, uncovering complex networks of associated groups. They have created their own networks across their entire country, The Russians likely feel the understanding US or other nations’ security officials have on the security situation there is based on the abstract, gleaned from reports and studies.  Bringing US security officials to an situational awareness equal to that of Russian officials, who understand Islamic militant groups in the region from the inside, would require the use of more resources and precious time.  Efforts to support the Russians using technical means may exist, but it is likely some it duplicates Russian efforts already ongoing with the use of their own tools.   

More importantly, MVD and FSB authorities are very likely concerned that with so many, if not all, of their premium security assets being employed to protect the Games, US specal agents and case officers would be provided a unique opportunity to observe and collect data on the capabilities and effectiveness of the Russian security services.  Defeating that possibility would mean covering the US security presence in or around any secure facilities with counterintelligence resources that are needed for the Sochi anti-terrorism effort. 

Russian authorities may sense that US officials expressing their concerns over security for the Games may be projecting the fears and anxieties raised during their own efforts to protect the US homeland from attacks in the post-September 11th environment.  While Russian officials may not know or be able to intimate if or when an attack might be attempted at Sochi, they are neither uncertain, nor insecure about their ability to defeat anything that falls within their radar.  That is the best they can hope for.  From a more cynical Russian perspective, US concerns over security for the Games, especially among political officials, is that 2014 is an election year for the US Congress, and expressing concern over the Games servs to demonstrate a candidate’s willingness to protect US citizens and interests overseas.  Additionally, the Russians security officials may feel the attempt is being made to goad them into exposing their security tactics, techniques, and procedures as a result of comments by US officials or pundits regarding Russian capabilities.

“Annihilating the Terrorists”

Perhaps Putin could have attempted to eliminate the problem of terrorism from Islamic militant groups altogether by committing his security forces to large-scale operations a year or more before the Games.  Contrary to statements made by US officials, all along, the Russians have been very sensitive to the fact that any large-scale, federal district wide, counter-terrorism operations weeks before the Games could have possibly spoil the spirit of the Olympics, and create the impression that Sochi is not safe to visit. 

At the end of the Games, however, it is very likely that elevated use of sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups will leave the Russian government with the best understanding ever of regional Islamic terrorist groups.  It is possible that so much quality information will have been gathered and the security services situational awareness will be so enhanced that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could be conducted by MVD, FSB, and possibly SVR special service groups.  (Note: These units and their capabilities are discussed in the January 8, 2014 greatcharlie.com post.)  Those operations might result in a decisive victory over the terrorist.  The operations of the`special sevice groups could be augmented by the use of regular military ground and air assets.  Their firepower could be directed to have a multiplier effect in the field.

Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness at a level which the Russians may have acquired while securing the Games.  When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system.  Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allow the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself.  However, McChrystal indicated 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.  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 forces would be able 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.  (See much more on McChrystal’s concepts in General Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task A Memoir Portfolio, 2013)

Not to advise Imarat Kavkaz or Islamic militant groups in the Caucasus, but if they have a goal to create an Islamic state in Russia, nothing would do more to ensure that hope will never be realized than attacking the Games.  An attack would be an international tragedy, a violation of the Russian people, and a personal affront to Putin.  Along with international outrage and condemnation, Russian authorities would most likely implement the most ferocious plans formulated as a response.  Assuredly, there would be endless capture and kill raids, and decisive military attacks against any strongholds established.  It is somewhat likely that Putin, outraged, would also consider the physical displacement of specific parts of the community from which the militant groups emanate and situating them in a various secure areas in different parts of Russia until such time the threat of terrorism posed to the Russian people could be sorted out.  Other nations and human rights groups might complain, but there would be little they could do to stop it.

Assessment

There is the possibility that concerns over security for the Olympic Games will be quelled only after it closes on February 27th without any incidents of violence.  Interestingly, Islamic militant groups posed a threat to the Russian government long before the Games were scheduled.  There may be legitimate concern behind much of the criticism.  However, there may very well be a political purpose behind the timing of some of it.    Perhaps the benefit of the generous investment of security resources on Sochi might be the creation of opportunities for Russian security officials to establish enduring security in the Caucasus.  Those groups that may seek to disrupt or halt the Games through terrorism might want to consider that the Games reach a level of national and historical importance and psychic benefit for the Russian people that Putin’s response would be unprecedented.  The purpose of any militant group cannot be served by eliciting Putin’s wrath.  Sochi is the wrong place and the wrong time for the militant groups to act.  Hopefully, from February 7th to February 23rd, peace, unity, and good sportsmanship will be the only things concerning the world at the Games.

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 reports that suggested the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been repositioning troops and equipment necessary for employing chemical weapons. while the US Congress has been debating whether to authorize military action, however to gain authorization for military action.from Capitol Hill, the Obama administration would need to accept restrictions on the military response. In order to make the strike meaningful, the article suggests that the administration expand its scope. The worst outcome, explained the article, would be to come out of the current struggle with Congress with authorization for an attack that made little difference. Doubt within the Congress over US military action in Syria greatly mirrored doubt projected by the Obama administration in its handling of the issue.

While the US has the capability and capacity to carry out calibrated strikes against the Assad regime, Obama has had 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. The argument could be made, or rather the excuse could be given, that 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 its August 21st chemical attacks. His public statements are examined and an analysis of those very statements is used as guidance to propose elements for a plan for military action in Syria that would better meet Obama’s needs as well as achieve his desired outcome. A transformational opportunity that the US might capitalize on to find some advantage in reaching a secure and sustainable peace agreement in Syria is also duscussed.

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

Through Obama’s initial statements, it seemed that military action would almost certainly be taken in response to the Assad regime’s August 21st use of chemical weapons. The US newsmedia pundits practically insisted that an attack was imminent. Still, nothing happened. Immediate perception caused most to believe that Obama wanted to take action in response to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Yet, as time moved on, there was a palpable sense through his statements that Obama was not very confident about doing anything. Obama appeared indecisive and greatly concerned about possible negative outcomes, such as embroiling 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 the Assad regime. Through their boasting and posturing on how aggressively they would respond to US military action, their rebuffs of validity of US intelligence on the source of the chemical attacks, and their hostile taunts about Obama’s courage, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iranian military leaders sought to exploit what they perceived as Obama’s insecurity over taking military action and his uncertainty about its aftermath. Obama’s advisers failed to do enough to assist him in articulating a clear concept and intent for action based on his “nuanced”  thinking. For several days, there was a rather sloppy, piecemeal presentation of ends, ways, and means for using military force in Syria voiced publicly 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. Apparently, White House advisers provided Obama with a plan that represented something far from decisive action, far less than determined deterrence against further chemical use by Assad. The plan for action better resembled some panicky plan for the pre-emption of additional chemical attacks with the guiding concept being that the US must steer clear getting involved in the Syrian civil war. 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’s thinking to the extent that they tried to meet his desire to be transparent with the US public on the use of military force. Explanations to the public of how the new plan would achieve US goals were inaudible. Explanations of how military action in Syria would fit into overall US strategy in the region were nonexistent. However, once the rather incomplete plans were exposed via the media, opponents of the US would naturally make assumptions that there was little to be concerned about and they could proceed with their own plans in Syria.

All of this being considered, Obama, despite all initial appearances, does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. Still, it was Obama’s own use of the term “military action” that was understood to mean “war” among many Members of Congress, the US public, commentators, rivals, and detractors. It stirred great concern over long list of terrible possibilities. The US Congress and public, in particular, fully recalled the ventures of the administration of US President George W. Bush into Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, military intervention, while proffered by the Bush administration to have been well-considered, had a clear cause–weapons of mass destruction, and would have firm goals, led to tragic losses of personnel and relatively meager results. When Obama and his officials speak of military action, there is concern that the US would find itself once again committed militarily overseas to a far 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 August 21st 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 vague  his response the how, when, and where of the response. The Congress could have been informed of a plan for action by the Obama administration 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

Granular details on Obama’signed thinking on military action in Syria certainly could be found in minutes of meetings, memos, and other records of the dialogue on the matter. However, guidance on Obama’s thinking to a significant, or indeed sufficient, degree can also be gleaned in significant amounts from open-source reporting on the White House’s decision making on Syria. For example, a healthy amount of information was revealed in a CNN interview aired on August 23, 2013, during which Obama discussed potential US response to what was then called an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. It could be discerned that 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. Indeed, 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. It was also apparent in the CNN interview that Obama’s thinking was influenced by his background as a legal scholar, expressed concern about international law. In his discussion, Obama revisited his failure to respond when the Assad regime’s crossing of a chemical weapons use “red line” he had declared in 2012. 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.” Further, Obama was seemed to be concerned with what the genuine interests of the US were in Syria. While Obama admitted that there was some criticism and pressure from some Members of Congress for robust military action 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?”

Obama’s statements on CNN  did not contrast at all with his speech in the White House Rose Garden on August 31, 2013, during which he further expressed his concept and intent for US action in Syria. In that more detailed and refined presentation of why and how he intended to proceed, Obama stated: “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.” Hearing and reading that statement, one could believe Obama, without a shadow of doubt intended to take military action against Syrian regime targets. The US military operation he envisioned would not require “boots on the ground” and would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. Obama went on to explain: “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 further stated 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.” Obama clearly wanted any military operation to be punitive in nature, limited to being a response to the August 21st chemical weapons attack. In no way was it to be part of the ongoing efforts to remove Assad by forcing him to negotiate an agreement for peaceful transition to a democratic form of government. A US response to the chemical weapons would be unrelated to diminunive US efforts in support of Syrian opposition and change the military balance on the battlefield thereby supporting them. Obama’s publicized military plans did not appear muscular enough to accomplish any of the anyway.

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 to show the Assad regime was held 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 movements by officers and men of any other Syrian Army units that appear to have the aim of preparing to launch chemical attacks will also be monitored by the US. The officers and men of such unitsinvolved must 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. Both countrues, against US wishes, have 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. That is something it greatly desires. 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. There have been indications that a quid pro quo of increasing training and arms for the opposition forces in return for support from Members of Congress on military action.

While it may be undue optimism to suggest this, it may be that if the US, Russia, and Iran cooperated or cordinated in some way against rogue Islamic militant factions, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria. They might urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. The steadily stream of Islamic militants going into Syria is a genuine problem that must be immediately dealt with. Units of such foreign fighters have made the situation in Syria, far more violent, far worse. The US, Russia, and Iran should continue to place joint attention on the transnational threat the Assad regime poses with it chemical weapons. 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. It also does not prevent a rogue regimes such as Assad’s from secreting weapons for future use, even against its current. By working together to resolve such issues, 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.

Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels: Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!

On July 22, 2013, Reuters reported in an exclusive story that Congress and the Obama administration agreed to move forward with a plan for the US to arm the struggling Syrian rebels according to officials.  The first break in the impasse came on July 12 when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had questioned the wisdom of arming the insurgents, decided behind closed doors to tentatively agree that the Obama administration could go ahead with its plans, but wanted updates as the covert effort proceeded.  Then on July 12th, the House Committee reached a consensus to give a cautious go-ahead after certain concerns were eased.  Under tacit rules followed by the executive branch and the Congress on intelligence matters, the White House will not send arms to the Syrian opposition if both or one of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees expressed objections.  Reuters learned from a source familiar with the administration’s thinking, speaking on the condition anonymity, that the Obama administration had been working with Congress to address some of the Members’ initial concerns, and that helped to create the opportunity for the administration to proceed.  The timeline is unclear, but it is expected by August, US arms would reach the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian opposition, and then be distributed to appropriate groups within the Free Syrian Army.  However, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Reuters that despite the consensus to support the Obama administration’s plan, he along with some other Members, both Republican and Democrat, still had strong reservations. 

Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was among those Members who did not hear anything strong enough to convince him the Obama administration’s plans were viable.  Reuters quoted him as stating “It’s too late to affect the outcome with a small amount of arms.”  Representative Schiff also remarked “I think we would have to provide such a massive amount of arms, and additional military support to change the balance on the battlefield, that we would inevitably be drawn deeply into the civil war.”  Representative Schiff said “I think we also have to expect that some of the weapons we provide are going to get into the hands of those who would use them against us.”  Admitting his view on the committee was in the minority, Representative Schiff still felt that among many Americans, there was “little appetite for getting involved in a third [war],” after fighting two in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Reuters reported that the Intelligence Committee sessions on arming the rebels were classified and held in secret.  Without public reports or statements coming out of the secret hearings, knowing exactly what was said behind closed doors is nearly impossible. What most likely swayed most Members were not facts about the ongoing situation in Syria, but rather a plan of action under which the Obama administration felt its goals and Congressional goals could be accomplished in Syria.  Congressional goals in Syria are to help the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and to place more pressure on his regime.  Congress requires that Free Syrian Army groups and members meet its criteria on human rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation of arms.  After examining the current situation in Syria, and concerns of Members such as Representative Schiff, a “guess” is made here on a plan the Obama administration very likely proposed to take on Syria before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees which led to a consensus to give the administration the green light.

The NATO’s Syria Assessment

Many military experts would agree with Representative Schiff’s statement that “It’s too late to affect the outcome with a small amount of arms.”  There is no indication that the situation on the ground in Syria has changed in favor of the Free Syrian Army.  Rather, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, fully acknowledged as recently as July 18th that “Currently the tide has shifted in his [Assad’s] favor.”  In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July, 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 Russian and Iranian support, would capture major Free Syrian Army strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO, in consultation with US and EU intelligence services, concluded that the Free Syrian Army’s military campaign had failed over the past three months.  Officials said that the Syrian component of the Free Syrian Army had deteriorated dramatically since April and the point had been reached where it was difficult to distinguish who was determined to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  Moreover, NATO assessed that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  Rather, the majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters, most of them affiliated with Al-Qaida.  It was NATO’s assessment that ostensibly resulted in a decision by several leading NATO countries to halt lethal weapons shipments for the Free Syrian Army.  In mid-July, Britain and France signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria.  Officials said that the two countries which until June were the most vocal supporters for arming the Free Syrian Army determined that any major weapons shipments would end up with Al-Qaida affiliated factions.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was quoted as saying, “There are certain conditions that need to be met before eventually sending weapons.”  Under these circumstances, the US decision to withhold shipments was sound.  Conditions on the ground could not have caused a change in opinion among Committee Members.

An Assessment from the US Intelligence Community

Statements coming from officials in the US intelligence community substantiate Representative Schiff’s concerns over the size and extent of US arming and involvement in Syria.  On July 20, 2013, the New York Times reported that David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency issued one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the US and its allies had so far been lacking. According to the New York Times, the 31-year intelligence veteran warned at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual meeting on security issues, that the Syrian conflict could last “many, many months to multiple years,” and described a situation that would most likely worsen regardless of whether the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fell.  Shedd described two different scenarios for Syria’s future, both of which he said predicted far more violence and killing. He reportedly stated, “If Bashar [al-]Assad were to succeed, he will be a more ruthless leader who will live with a legacy of tens of thousands of his civilians killed under him.”   Shedd went on to explain that a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict could grow if Mr. Assad’s government fell or he was killed.  The New York Times quoted Shedd as saying, “If he loses and goes to an enclave inside there, I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come,” noting that more radical elements like the Nusra Front would fight to control parts of the country. “They will fight for that space. They’re there for the long haul.”  The New York Times noted Shedd’s assessment of the US ability to draw distinctions among an opposition that he said numbered about 1,200 groups.  Shedd was said to have suggested that modest interventions were unlikely to make a significant difference at a time when Mr. Assad’s army has been reclaiming territory on the battlefield, with the support of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, and when the Free Syrian Army is bitterly divided   He also pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic militant factions.  Shedd also reportedly suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.  Shedd stated “The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger.”  He emphasized that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”   Clearly, unde Shedd’s assessment, mainstream Free Syrian Army groups are not getting stronger or achieving much.  Rather, Islamic militant factions have gained the upper-hand over mainstream Syrian groups and are preparing to shape Syria’s future.  These facts could not have caused a change of thinking within the Congress to begin arms shipments.

The Islamic Militant Threat to the US Syrian Effort

Given the present size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria, Representative Schiff’s concerns, as well as those of US allied that Western arms would fall into the hands of Islamic militants that caused many countries to delay their arms deliveries, are legitimate.  Representative Schiff was quoted as saying “I think we also have to expect that some of the weapons we provide are going to get into the hands of those [Al-Nusra Front] who would use them against us.”  In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  Jabhat Al-Nusra or as they are now known, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, was active in Syria under their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) auspices for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Ever since the formation of Al-Qaida in Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity. 

Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Salafist/Jihaddi factions working in concert with it, have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Jabhat Al-Nusra has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes.  They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime.  They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.  Yet, lately, they have been known best by their rogue acts within Free Syrian Army territory.  They include attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.  Islamic militant factions have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, attempting to transform Syrian society, being particularly harsh with Syrian women, and sometimes even carrying out summary public executions on Syrian citizens.  Further, they have monopolized wheat and fuel supplies in towns creating even greater shortages for residents.   Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying day by day.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities could reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  Although mainstream Free Syrian Army groups may want to create the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Syria, Islamic militant factions seek to create an Islamic state.  Clashes between Islamist militant factions and Kurdish militias spread to a second Syrian province last weekend.  As infighting continues, more Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis are pouring into Syria.  Under the conditions Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamic factions have created in Free Syrian Army territory and with their strength, it would be reckless for any country to send arms to the opposition.  As long as this situation persisted, Congress would hardly have been willing to allow any arms deliveries.

US Military Options in Syria

An unclassified assessment of military options the US could take if requested by the Obama administration are not quick and easy and would dramatically increase US costs and risk of loss in Syria.  That supports Representative Schiff’s concerns that by providing “additional military support to change the balance on the battlefield . . . we would inevitably be drawn deeply into the civil war.”  On July 22, 2013, Reuters reported that US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee outlined and assessed five options he said the US military was prepared to undertake: training and advising the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, establishing buffer zones and controlling chemical arms.  According to General Dempsey, the options he provided would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime.  However, the general 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.”

The US military’s current role in the conflict is limited to delivering humanitarian aid, providing security assistance to Syria’s neighbors and providing nonlethal help to the Syrian opposition. The US military has an operational headquarters unit in Jordan along with other assets, including F-16 jets.  Among the options for action provided by General Dempsey were the following: 1) US military personnel could train, advise and assist the Free Syrian Army. That mission could include weapons training, tactical planning and intelligence and logistics assistance, General Dempsey explained.  He estimated the cost at $500 million a year (General Dempsey did not indicate whether that was a figure based on very immediate action or a plan to train and equip the Free Syrian Army over a period of months); 2) the US could conduct limited stand-off strikes. General Dempsey said this option would use air and missile strikes to attack Syrian air defenses, military forces and command structure to damage the Assad government’s ability to wage war. The cost could run a billion dollars a month and risk retaliatory strikes and civilian casualties; 3) the US could establish a no-fly zone. General Dempsey said 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; 4) the US troops  could establish buffer zones. General Dempsey said this option would use force to establish safe zones inside Syria where the opposition could train and organize while being protected from attack by government forces. He said the cost would be over a billion dollars a month and could improve opposition capabilities over time.  However, the zones could become targets for Syrian attack; and 5) General Dempsey stated lethal force could be used to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons and to destroy Syria’s “massive stockpile” of the weapons. He said the option would require hundreds of aircraft as well as personnel on the ground and could cost over a billion dollars per month.  These options for Syria accompanied by costs and risks would have likely persuaded the Members to give the administration a green light for it plans.  Rather, they would most likely cause the Members to further deliberate before taking any steps.

“Humanitarian Appeals” for Arming the Syrian Opposition

While Representative Schiff was correct in his view that the US public was not interested in engaging in a new war, appeals to the public and officials for the US to become more involved in Syria have been continually made by advocates for the Syrian opposition.  In a surprisingly emotional editorial in the Washington Post on July 17, 2013, journalist David Ignatius admonished the Obama administration for failing to rush arm and supplies to the Free Syrian Army and appealed for immediate assistance to be sent.  He explained how the failed to provide aid defined the US in the world as a nation unwilling to stand by its friends and fulfill its promises.  Ignatius pointed to the fact that it was nearly two years ago, on Aug. 18, 2011, when President Obama first proclaimed, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”  Ignatius sates that did not back up his call for regime change with any specific plan, but only furthered his position by repeating the “Assad must go” theme regularly ever since.  Ignatius noted that that the CIA began working with the Syrian opposition in 2011 and has been providing training and other assistance given some impression that greater aid was to come.  Ignatius recalled the June 13th the White House announcement that it would provide militaryaid to the Syran opposition because the Assad regime had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, causing the rebels began preparing warehouses to receive the promised shipments. Ignatius asks readers “Imagine for the moment that you are a Syrian rebel fighter who has been risking his life for two years in the hope that Obama was sincere about helping a moderate opposition prevail not just against Assad but against the jihadists who want to run the country. Now you learn that Washington is having second thoughts.”  Ignatius quoted from a message sent by one opposition member: “I am about to quit, as long as there is no light in the end of the tunnel from the US government. At least if I quit, I will feel that I am not part of this silly act we are in.” Ignatius also includes an angry quote from General Salim Idriss, commander in chief of the Free Syrian Army in the Daily Telegraph, which stated, “The West promises and promises.  This is a joke now. . . . What are our friends in the West waiting for?  For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”  He states Ignatius said “What’s happening in Syria isn’t a pretty sight, as the moderates struggle to survive without the expected Western aid.”  This unusually emotional and very partisan appeal by Ignatius, and others like it, that claimed the US has abandoned the Syrian opposition fighters it promised to stand by, would very likely strike a chord among Members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.  However, with budgetary concerns and the uncertainty over the situation in Syria, such an appeal while understood and heartfelt, could not cause the Committees to enter to US into a new war with all of the consequences that would entail.

The Administration’s Likely Proposal to the Intelligence Committees: A Purge in the Free Syrian Army

What seems to stand out from all of this is that the US is really unable to do the things it wants to do in Syria.  The main stumbling block to achieving the goals of both the Obama administration and Congress is the Islamic militant groups.  That is the situation that needs change.  It is somewhat likely that a plan of action to shape events on the ground in Syria was presented to the Congress, and was given the green light.  Jabhat Al-Nusra 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 Further, Islamic militant factions intensify 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.  As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in a July 11, 2013 post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would 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 have a remote chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would enlarge the US role in the Syrian conflict.  However, it would place the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army.  By purging rogue Islamic militants factions, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, properly organize its remaining groups as a military force, establish unit cohesion and coordination between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and enhancing their combat power with better arms.  This step would be in line with the statements of David Shedd of the Defense Intelligence Agency 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.  This step would also be in line with the military option outlined by General Dempsey in which US military personnel could train, advise, and “assist” the Free Syrian Army.  With about 1200 groups in the Free Syrian Army, it is conceivable that an Islamic militant faction may evade the purge and secure US arms.  However, that risk can be minimized or possibly eliminated as long as the intelligence services of the US, the EU, Arab states, and the Supreme Military Council work in unison to identify Islamic militants in the Free Syrian Army ranks.

(Once operations are underway, perhaps Hezbollah, whose military-wing was recently placed on the EU’s terrorist blacklist, might also be subjected to kinetic strikes by US, EU, and Arab state forces, with the goal of creating more favorable odds for the Free Syrian Army on the battlefield and placing pressure on the Assad regime..)

It is also somewhat likely that a follow-on plan to develop and conduct Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant factions would have been proposed to Congress.  Sufficient numbers of mainstream fighters would need to be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the purged Islamic militant groups.  US efforts could be coordinated with allied intelligence services and special operations forces to support and advise the Free Syrian Army units on the ground in Syria.  They could also support Free Syrian Army operations by instructing unit commanders and senior leaders in maneuver tactics and unconventional warfare.  When necessary, they could actually fight alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s forces and allies.  At that time, the US could also engage in a rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army. 

As it was explained on greatcharlie.com on July 11th, with the Free Syrian Army facing the possibility of folding under the weight of the clashes caused by the Islamic militants, and civilian deaths now exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, time is of the essence.  Assad has no reason to negotiate terms with an opposition he could easily defeat.  He may believe the force will soon collapse on its own.  Supporting the mainstream groups and purging undesirable factions would be a clear demonstration of the continued support of the US and the Friends of Syria for positive change in Syria.  Yet, this step would not be taken just as a matter of principle.  A purge is the best option to take if supporting and utilizing the Free Syrian Army remains the goal of the US, EU, and Arab states. The Congressional Intelligence committees needed to make a decision on Syria.  With their ovesight, the plan should succeed.  While it cannot be confirmed anything like this plan was actually proposed, it might be the very course of action the US should take.

Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies

On July 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that in Syria, deadly clashes raged between a mainstream rebel group and a radical faction, both from the Free Syrian Army.  The fighting highlighted the difficulties associated with unifying the military leadership of the Syrian opposition to the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, and even more, having them halt the recent battlefield gains made by the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies.  The clashes also bring into question whether arming Syrian opposition forces may be a viable option at all.  This problem, as well as others facing the Free Syrian Army, troubles policy makers in the capitals of the US, EU, and Arab states who support that force.  However, as the clashes among rival Free Syrian Army units intensify, a new option for supporting the hobbled force, perhaps even more in line with the national interest of its benefactors, becomes apparent.  It may very well be the last, best hope for shaping up the Free Syrian Army and getting things going on the battlefield.

Attempting to Halt the Gains the Assad regime’s Forces

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria, a group organized by former US Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government, vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  The Friends of Syria includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also concluded that the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  He further stated that the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the main plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack Assad’s forces and allies by August.  However, bringing the Free Syrian Army, the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations, has proven very difficult. The Free Syrian Army is a loose-knit, umbrella group. The recent clashes between the rival factions are made more significant since one faction is an Islamic militant group affiliated with Al-Qaida.  US, EU and Arab state intelligence and special operations forces, already engaged in supplying the Free Syrian Army with arms, military materiel, and nonlethal supplies, have more recently been struggling to determine which are members of Islamic militant groups to prevent them from receiving sophisticated Western weapons. The presence and participation of Islamic militant groups in the Free Syrian Army raised concerns, particularly in Western capitals, at the start of the civil war.  As time has passed, those concerns have not been mitigated in the slightest way.  In fact, the worst concerns about the Islamic militants are being realized.

Islamic Militant’s Destructive Presence in the Free Syrian Army

As the June 22nd New York Times article further detailed, the Islamic militants in the opposition were members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front.  In a recent episodes of the struggle include the Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamists accused the Farouq brigade of had hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamist group were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 1, 2013, the BBC had reported Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units have been accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents..  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  According to the New York Times, foreign fighters continue to spill into Syria through its porous borders.  .

The Global War on Terror May Be Over, But Counterterrorism Is Still a Priority

On May 23, 2013, US President Barack Obama may have stated that the open-ended global war on terror had to end.  However, that did not mean that the US has in anyway halted its attacks upon Islamic militants affiliated with Al-Qaida.  The most obvious manifestation of this are the drone strikes that attack Islamic militants in Pakistan, Yemen and wherever they may be operating.  Supporting the Free Syria Army is a “cause” based on the interests of the US to bring down to regime of Bashar Al-Assad and support the establishment of a democratic government in Syria.  Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria albeit may want to remove the Assad regime.  However, it is counterintuitive to seek those goals while arming Islamic militant groups that affiliate themselves with Al-Qaida and are bent on establishing a strict conception of sharia law in Syria.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, DC happened.  The March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid occurred.  The attacks on July 7, 2005 in London took place.  The attacks on November 26, 2008 in Mumbai transpired.  There were many other terrorist attacks.  Osama Bin Laden, killed by US Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011, was determined to conduct acts of terrorism against the West and Islamic states of which he disapproved.  His organization remains engaged in that effort.  The Islamic militant groups that have clashed with mainstream Free Syrian Army units are the same forces that the world sought to destroy during the global war on terror.

Syria has become a state sized version of the town of Sinjar in Iraq. Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq.  Under the order of the commander Joint Special Operations Command, then Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Sinjar was hit hard and effectively in October 2007.  The overall Sinjar effort was said by General David Petraeus, to have done more to halt the terror networks that flowed foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq than any other operation.  With the help of mainstream Free Syrian Army units, US, EU, and Arab state intelligence and unconventional warfare units could defeat Islamic militant groups in Syria and remove them from the ranks of the opposition forces.  Once the Islamic militant hold in Syria and connection to the Free Syrian Army was eliminated, intelligence and special operations forces would have greater opportunities to do other things with the Syrian opposition.

Exploiting the Opportunity Presented

The Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces are said to be already working on matters concerning the Free Syrian Army.  The Los Angeles Times reported that operatives of both the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces have organized a secret training program for Free Syrian Army fighters with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since November 2012.  Iterations of the training are two-week courses conducted by US as well as Jordanian and French operatives. It  includes training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons.  Teams of US Special Operations Forces selected the trainees over the last year when the US military set up regional supply lines into Syria to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid.  About 20 to 45 fighters are trained at a time.  Between 80 and 100 Free Syrian Army fighters from all over Syria went through the courses in May 2013 alone.  At the time the Los Angeles Times article was printed, about 100 rebels from Daraa had attended four courses, and rebels from Damascus, the Syrian capital had attended three.  While engaged in training activities, Central Intelligence Agency officers would sit and interview trainees during breaks from sessions, and afterward they would try to collect specific information on the situation in Syria based on intelligence requirements.  The Central Intelligence Agency is also engaged in an effort to eliminate the risk that more sophisticated weapons, such as man-portable, air defense systems (MANPADS), which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, would be given to Islamic militant groups.  It has put in place what officials have described as an “elaborate” vetting procedure for the Free Syrian Army fighters they train.  To accelerate the effort, the Central Intelligence Agency is said to be considering placing some units of US Special Operations Forces under its authority for the additional purpose of conducting some of the training. The Central Intelligence Agency is reportedly engaged in joint efforts with unconventional warfare units from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to enhance the training effort.

To support mainstream groups of the Free Syrian Army, the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces could possible work under a plan that might include some of the following steps.  To begin, the Central Intelligence Agency would need to increase its intelligence collection resources in Syria.  Working with locals and insurgents to collect required intelligence concerning an opponent to be utilized in the development of an operational plan would be the standard operating procedure for Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Us Special Operations Forces.  However, having established very positive links with mainstream Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters, the process of gathering information about Islamic militants within the force would be made less complicated.  When necessary, Central Intelligence Agency operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, could quietly interview locals to gain 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 would be identified and an effort would be made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them.  An effort would eventually be made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.  Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted.  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 should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk once direct action is taken against those groups.  The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operation Forces, supported by allied intelligence and unconventional warfare units.  A plan would be developed to conduct Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups.  Sufficient numbers of 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.  At that time, the Central Intelligence Agency could also engage in a rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army.

Assessment

New voices in the Obama administration at the White House and at the UN, viewing Syria as a humanitarian crisis worthy of some type of intervention, likely have the ear of the president.  As a result, the Central Intelligence Agency may very likely be pushed harder to work with allies and special operations forces to train and equip the Free Syrian Army as it is currently organized.  Currently, the Free Syrian Army lacks the ability to achieve success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. There is no real cohesion within the organization.  Rivalries and divisions are more apparent.  While some type of modus vivendi may have been established among a few units of rival factions in close contact with Assad’s forces, those contacts cannot serve as the foundation of a unified fighting force.  The Assad regime, on the other hand, has very powerful allies ready to support it with money and weapons, as well as fight alongside his forces. Under the most favorable assessment, the Free Syrian Army capabilities cannot be ramped up, and the force cannot fight in concert in a size and strength great enough, in any short period of time, to confront Assad’s forces.   Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army at this point would be reckless.

Supporting Islamic militants who attack mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters is not in the interest of the US or any of the “Friends of Syria.”  Creating a viable fighting force from the Free Syrian Army as it currently exists with rivalries and clashes will be impossible.  Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying.  The Free Syrian Army, even if lucky enough under some scenario to defeat Assad’s forces, would not be able to play a role in creating a secure and sustainable peace in Syria because its deep divisions.  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.  It is clear that the more powerful Islamic militant groups as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government.  Only by intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups adverse to the efforts of government transition supported by the Friends of Syria would the Free Syrian Army have a remote chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Supporting the mainstream groups and eliminating undesirable factions would be a clear demonstration of the Friends of Syria’s continued support for positive change in Syria.  Providing this “helping hand” would prove the organization to be a reliable ally of the Syrian opposition and its original goals.  With the Free Syrian Army facing the possibility of folding under the weight of these clashes, and civilian deaths now exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, time is of the essence.  A decision must be made.  Assad has no reason to negotiate terms with an opposition he could easily defeat.  He may believe the force will soon collapse on its own.  The option presented here is the best option to take if supporting and utilizing the Free Syrian Army remains the goal of the US, EU, and Arab states.

Note: This post is intended as a “think piece” containing observations, ruminations, and reflections for the consideration of greatcharlie.com readers.  It is not intended as an endorsement of, or the presentation of a plan for, US and allied covert action against elements of the Free Syrian Army.