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

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

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

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

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

It is disappointing to learn that Syrian opposition political officials are still making churlish complaints over assistance being provided by the US and other benefactors. Their “mantra” has been a demand for more arms and supplies for their forces and for greater things to be done, such as launching airstrikes against the Syrian Armed Forces to promote their success. Complaints are also often heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after three years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. They have been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Armed Forces. How easy it is for the Syrian opposition to stand in judgement of the US and others, taking a position of moral superiority and declaring they are owed certain levels of assistance from them. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian opposition, its Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should expect more from themselves before demanding so much of others. With regard to the current situation in which a US-led coalition is hitting ISIS with airstrikes, Syrian opposition political and military leaders certainly must do more than offer lip service about their benefactors’ actions. They should consider how they might best act to capitalize on positive results with or without coordination with planners of the air campaign. If the opportunity arises, they should present proposals for coordinated action to their US government contacts. They should remain willing, even if alone, to do what is necessary to carry on their fight until final victory is achieved. Faber est suae quisque fortunae! (Every man is the artisan of his own fortunes!)

The Syrian Opposition’s Present Situation

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

What ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra and its offshoot Khorasan have done is find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that have been trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups have also committed countless attrocities against the Syrian people. The groups are not directed toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstrean opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance will never occur. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups were becoming stronger almost daily. Their strength had already passed the point at which mainstream Syrian oppositon forces could have contended with them.  

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

What Syrian Opposition Leaders Should Be Doing

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

What Further US Assistance Might Look Like

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

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

Assessment

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

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

 

Book Review: Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

Pictured above is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.  Levitt explains that Nasrallah functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei

When foreign policy books cover topics such as terrorism or an on-going conflict provide information and insight on people and events that arise in the news and useful to refer long past its publication date, it becomes a must have for one’s library.  Matthew Levitt’s latest work, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God  (Georgetown University Press, 2013) is one of those books.  Although published in September 2013, it has been a terrific resource for background on recent events in the news such as the death the death of Hussane Laqees of the Hezbollah’s military wing in Syria, the identity of David Salahuddin, who lured missing former FBI agent and errant CIA operative, Robert Levinson to Iran, and new revelations about Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s role in the Iraq War.  

In Hezbollah, Levitt sets out to provide a strong background on Hezbollah’s effort to create a global network for terrorist activity.  Given his credentials, he was highly qualified to undertake that task.  Levitt currently serves as a fellow and director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence.  Formerly, Levitt served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Treasury; as an FBI counter-terrorism analyst, and an adviser on counter-terrorism to the US Department of State.  He previously authored, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorrism in the Service of Jihad (Yale University Press, 2006). 

Through his initial government service at the FBI, Levitt cut his teeth in the intelligence field, working through mounds of data on terrorist groups to uncover family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources, tradecraft, and recruiting tactics.  Levitt uses those same skills to breakdown Hezbollah in the same manner that served to help US law enforcement and intelligence community develop profiles on the organization.  Thus, in reading Hezbollah, one gets to look at the organization through the prism of a US intelligence analyst.   Overlaying each chapter, is a presentation of Hezbollah’s tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods.  While Levitt does not always point directly to Hezbollah’s strengths that need to be overcome such as Iran’s training and support, and weaknesses that need to be exploited such as its inability to establish stable and sustainable funding sources outside of Iran, much can be extrapolated from the text.  US officials have long-acknowledged, respected, and feared Hezbollah’s terrorist networks, not only due to its attacks on US interests abroad (such as the early 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut or the attack on US military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia), but also because of Hezbollah’s active presence in the US.  The organization was placed on the US terror blacklist in 1997 and its military-wing was placed on the EU’s terror blacklist in 2013.

Since Levitt was an intelligence analyst, he does not offer any personal stories of contacts or tangling with Hezbollah.  However, viewing Hezbollah from the perspective of an analyst that does not mean the book is not filled with excitement and intrigue.  There is enough in the true stories of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities including money laundering, bribery, kidnappings, airline hijackings, torture, car, hotel, barracks, and embassy bombings, and assassinations to satiate the wettest of appetites for action.  Levitt manages to give one a sense of what it would mean to engage the grim faced fighters who exude religious fervor and revolutionary zeal, and hold in contempt anything representative of what members call “the Western oppressor.”  Hezbollah’s lethal capacities in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East have been well-discussed.  Levitt also covers the activities that helped to establish that reputation.  Indeed, as the book is outlined Levitt begins his discussion with Hezbollah’s genesis.  He then looks at the organization’s expansion throughout the Middle East to Western Europe, from Latin America to North America, and from Southeast Asia to Africa.  He presents Hezbollah’s activities with detailing both successful and unsuccessful plots.  What might have seemed unbelievable becomes believable as Levitt reveals the lengths Hezbollah would go to strike at Western interests.  While  doing so, Levitt also highlights the success US and other Western intelligence agencies have had tracking Hezbollah anywhere it goes worldwide. 

In discussing Hezbollah’s beginnings, Levitt explains how the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the impetus for, the organization’s emergence.  Many of its initial leaders first were members of Amal, the military arm of the political party founded by an influential Shi’a cleric named Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.  He urged the Lebanese Shi’a community to improve itself socially, economically, and politically.  He also intended for the Shi’a militia he established to fight against Israel as part of the Lebanese Army.  After al-Sadr’s death, many Shi’a were disappointed by Amal’s moderate policies and the willingness of al-Sadr’s successor, Nabih Berri, to accommodate Israel politically rather than confront it militarily. 

Those disgruntled Amal members joined with other Shi’a militia groups including the Muslim Students’ Union, the Dawa Party of Lebanon, and others.  They formed their own umbrella group, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah declared its main objectives in 1985 in an open letter “to all the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World.”  Boiled down by Levitt, those objectives were: to expel all colonialist entities—the US, France, and their allies from Lebanon; to bring the Phalangists to justice for the crimes they had committed against Lebanese Muslims and Christians; to permit “all of the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.”; to encourage Lebanon to install an Islamic regime which Hezbollah saw as the only type of government that could “stop further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country.”; and, to ensure “Our military apparatus is not separate from its overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”  As Levitt notes, at the center of the group’s insignia is not a map of Lebanon but a globe alongside a fist holding an AK-47 rifle.

Levitt makes crystal clear the connection between Hezbollah and Iran from the organization’s very beginning.  He discusses Iran’s deployment of 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to Lebanon to set up a base in the Bekaa Valley.  It was part of Iran’s effort to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab World.  All of Hezbollah’s members were required to attend the IRGC training camps in the valley.  In 1985, Hezbollah proudly declared its linkage to Iran: “We view the Iranian regime as the vanguard and new nucleus of the leading Islamic State in the world.  We abide by the orders of one single wise and just leadership, represented by the ‘Waliyat el-Faqih’ and personified by Khomeini.  Levitt states that over the past three decades, Hezbollah has remained Iran’s proxy.  The US Department of Defense estimates that Iran has provided Hezbollah with weapons, and spends up to $200 million a year funding the group’s activities, including its media channel, al-Manar, and operations abroad.  He mentions others claim Iran provides Hezbollah as much as $350 million a year.  Levitt also discusses how Iran’s Quds Force fostered the emergence of Hezbollah’s branches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait from 1994 to 1996. 

When discussing Hezbollah’s military-wing, Levitt quotes a Western government report that stated: “Little is known about [the Hezbollah military wing’s] internal command hierarchy due to its highly secretive nature and the use of sophisticated protective measures.”  Levitt notes that Hezbollah’s formal militia activity is known as the Islamic Resistance.  Its external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), is responsible for its financial, logistical and terrorist operations abroad.  While IJO activities are well-concealed, Levitt provides as much information as possible, making it the real focus of his examination of Hezbollah’s overseas activities.  Levitt explains how IJO was formed by a Hezbollah commander Imad Fayez Mughniyeh after he fled into Iran following his operation that resulted in the bombing of US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon.  Mughniyeh, who was described by the CIA as “cunning, resourceful, coldly calculating adversary for whom virtually any act of violence or revenge performed in the name of Shiism is permissible, ” would direct IJO until he was killed in February 2008. 

Regarding Hezbollah’s overall leadership, Levitt gives attention to Hezbollah’s first leader, Iraqi born Ayatollah Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah, for whom Mughniyeh was initially a body guard.  Fadlallah sought to establish the power, prestige, and authority of Hezbollah.  In following, Hezbollah developed its reputation for ruthlessness under him.  Levitt cites CIA report on Fadlallah that explained: “Fadlallah aims to bring forth defenders of the faith who are indifferent to intimidation, contemptuous of foreign influence, devoted to Shi’a Islam, and whose self-control borders on fanaticism.”  Mere contact with Hezbollah was considered a risky undertaking.  In an early chapter, Levitt points to reputation, by providing American kidnap victim’s account of being driven by his Hezbollah captors through a checkpoint held by the Amal militia group.  When the rebels asked the driver why there was a Westerner in the backseat, he simply replied “We are Hezbollah!”  The Amal militia men waved the car through.  The kidnapped American recalled how that merely claiming to be Hezbollah sounded like a threat.  

In his discussion of Hezbollah’s current secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Levitt asserts that he maintains overall control of the political and military wings of the organization.  Nasrallah heads the Shura Council which develops the overall vision and policies, oversees the general strategies for the Party’s function, and takes political decisions. It wields all decision making powers and direct several subordinate functional councils.  However, Nasrallah presides over the Shura Council and functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei.  Much as his predecessor Fadlallah, Levitt proffers that Nasrallah enhanced Hezbollah’s military-wing at the request of Iran to train and advise groups overseas, including Iraqi militant groups. 

Certainly, Levitt set firm parameters for his book.  Given the degree of information he possesses, it seems he could have written much more on Hezbollah’s organization and activities.  However, what might have been useful in the text would have been a discussion of Hezbollah’s operations in the Bosnia War (1992-1995) and the Lebanon War (2006).  That might have provided a sense for the development of its tactics, how Hezbollah performed, who were the leaders in the field, and what the nature of their contacts with the Quds Force were.  Reference is made to the creation of Unit 3800, which were Hezbollah Brigades that Nasrallah formed at Iran’s request.  Unit 3800 was given to mission of targeting multinational forces in Iraq for terrorist action.  The only reference to the mustering of a similar force was Unit 1800, which was dedicated to supporting Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israel.  It would have been interesting to know if a similar Hezbollah Brigades were ever established in Bosnia. 

Additionally, as Hezbollah is an ethno-religious, nationalist organization, a more in-depth look into the impact of the devotion to Shiism, their revolutionary zeal, and the culture of its fighters on the planning of conventional military and clandestine operations seemed required. Great risk and sacrifice are regular features of Hezbollah actions.  Some have reviewed Hezbollah and have gleaned from it that the thrust behind the organization’s moves are destroying Israel, driving the US out of the Middle East, and avenging the killing of Imad Mughniyeh.  However, through Levitt’s book, itself, it is very clear that Hezbollah thinking is far more complex.  Understanding Hezbollah means acquiring the rhythm in its actions.  That may allow for better predictions and perhaps even intimations as to its future plans. 

Further, one current event which Levitt does not give much attention is Syria.  It would have been interesting to see the extent to which the experience and lessons learned by Hezbollah over the past thirty years coalesced in its activities in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  It would be interesting to know what types of connections were made between Hezbollah and the Quds Force, the interaction between Hezbollah and Syrian militias, which Iran has organized into the National Defense Forces, and whether Hezbollah Brigades have been organized in to units such as Unit 1800 or 3800 to engage in terrorist attacks against the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council and Free Syria Army, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Levitt could have explained what accounts for the significant number casualties Hezbollah has suffered in Syria despite its many years in various war zones.  Surely, that would have been invaluable in understanding the continued evolution of the organization’s military-wing.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah, overall, is an outstanding appraisal of the organization’s worldwide operations and a significant contribution to the policy debate and public understanding of state-sponsored terrorism.  Hezbollah’s capacity for global terrorism, as explained by Levitt, makes the book one to think about when one cannot continue to read it.  Indeed, it will be hard to put down after reading the first page.   It is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide.  Regardless in which category one might consider oneself, greatcharlie highly recommends Hezbollah to you.  It is a must read.  Make certain that this book is on your reading list for 2014.

As the US Syria Policy Nears Failure, a Top US Syria Hand Offers Some Ideas

At greatcharlie.com, we seek to get beyond the “us-them” simplicities of foreign and defense policy issues and attempt to shed light upon the players and ideas that are moving events forward.  We collect articles, comments, and speeches, and interpret their meaning, determine their relative value to an issue at hand.  We then present our assessments to those who read our blog.  On October 25, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a “not for attribution” presentation of a “top US Syria hand” at a renowned foreign policy think tank and membership organization in New York.  He provided advice on the transition process in Syria.  He was tapped for that role in the Syria process due to his extensive experience in the US Army, in the Defense Department, and in the State Department handling Middle East issues and his direct experience with Syria itself.  The views expressed by the speaker were forthright and at times surprising. They shed light on how and why the negotiation process has reached its current state.

Those attending the presentation by the speaker were informed in advance that the presentation was “not-for-attribution”, and no reference to his identity could be made.  (He will be referred to in this post as “the speaker.”) Arresting my urge to reveal the expert’s name has been made more difficult since I sense the perspectives the speaker offered would be more meaningful for our readers.  Moreover, it would prevent my report of his perspectives as one more recounting of the views of an anonymous, highly-placed, Obama administration official.  It is hoped that the majority of our readers will be able to consider the comments and reflect on the meaning with regard to the US policy on Syria.  Indeed, they allow one to conclude that US efforts would unlikely result in a peaceful resolution in Syria and an agreement on a transitional government in Syria that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. .

The Syrian Civil War

Regarding the Syrian civil War, the speaker noted that the Syrian civil war was appalling in terms of the devastation and humanitarian crisis created.  There are over three million refugees residing outside of Syria. According to figures he acquired from the UN, there have been well over 150,000 civilians killed in the fighting.  On the ground, a de facto partition status existed.  In the western part of Syria, Assad has consolidated power. In the east, localized power centers exist, along with Jihadist linked to Al-Qaida.  In the northwest, Kurds have established a relatively autonomous area which is defending itself mostly from Jihadist groups.

The speaker noted that calling the Syrian conflict a civil war is misleading to most because it conjures the idea of a war of military engagements as in the US Civil War (1861-1865).  Although there are occasional engagements of military units in combat in urban areas, the speaker made it clear that the Syrian Civil War is in fact a war on civilians.  This has led to an enormous humanitarian catastrophe in which ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial executions, detentions, torture, injuries, rape, homelessness, starvation, sanitation, and disease, to name a few problems, were evident.

The speaker explained that a nationalist opposition movement had initiated the protests against the Assad regime and the civil war.  The nationalist movement, he point out, adhered to the idea of a Syrian identity based on citizenship, not religion or ethnicity.  However, this is no longer heard.  According to him, Jihadists have marginalized the nationalist opposition movement that.  He reported that the three main Jihadist units, comprised of many foreigners, were concentrating their efforts against Syrian civilians.  That has included the detentions, torture, and executions, already mentioned and deprivations of essentials for survival have been Jihadist tactics.  Yet, the speaker felt that the Assad’s regime use of lethal military force against civilians has been even more damaging.  The speaker explained that the humanitarian crisis was due to the Assad regime’s policy of using fire from artillery, rocket, jets, and helicopters in the midst of civilian areas without targeting.  It has been nothing but a terror campaign aimed at civilians.  Getting foreign humanitarian aid through to Syrian opposition held territory to deal with the multitude of suffering civilians has been impossible.  The regime will not allow this.

The speaker pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran were providing a great deal of support to the Assad regime.  However, he pointed to the fact that large sums of money were being providing to the Jihadists from Arab states, especially Kuwait at the moment.  Wanting to respond to violence by the Assad against their communities, Syrian men are drawn to opposition units that have sufficient resources to make an impact on the battlefield.  Those units are predominantly the Jihadist units.

To arrest the problem of the jihadist units, the US has initiated an effort to arm the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the military wing of the Syrian opposition.  Its commander in chief, General Salim Idris, would be the recipient of US funds, arms, and supplies, which he would be responsible for distributing the assistance among moderate, secular and capable Free Syrian Army units.  Since that effort began, the speaker noted that 13 Jihadist organizations have declared war on the Syrian National Council, the main political-wing of the opposition. The Jihadists are less engaged against Assad and more involved with establishing Islamist governments ruled under sharia law in areas under their control.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration still wants to focus on the SMC, hoping it will provide shares of aid to responsible groups.  The speaker felt the results of that effort had been lacking.  US officials allegedly revealed to the speaker that it is unknown whether that approach works or will ever have an impact.  Yet, the US insists on this approach.

Diplomacy

The Syrian chemical weapons agreement was viewed by the speaker as a good thing.  He alleged that all parties involved in Syria believed that it was good to see the Assad regime stripped of its inventory.  He saw the real challenge as being how to bridge the diplomatic process on chemical weapons agreement to the political process on Syria.  The speaker felt, however, that Assad regime’s chemical weapons use and stockpile was the top of an ugly ice berg and as long as the Assad regime remained in place and the large scale slaughter of civilians continued, it was hard to see how the diplomatic process could take hold in Syria.

The speaker stated that the Geneva process for Syria has presented as problem for the US Secretary of State John Kerry.  The aims of the process are to produce a negotiated, mutually consented transitional government in Damascus with full governing powers.  Geneva II set for November 23 and 24, 2013 will address transition in Syria.  The speaker, who was present at the Geneva conference on Syria on June 2012, revealed that consensus existed for transitional talks.  He noted, however, that consensus evaporated soon after that. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not mentioned in the June 30, 2012 communiqué of foreign powers among the conference participants. He lamented that this was a critical mistake because in Syria, all powers reside in the person of Assad.  No deals could be made unless they had the approval of Assad.  As of now, according to the speaker, at Geneva II, Assad’s presidency also will not be on the table.  That is problematic because it allows Assad to still hold power.  The speaker indicated that without Assad’s leadership on the table, nothing can be accomplished at Geneva II.  He was certain that Russia will support the Assad regime’s position.  In his opinion, the greatest threat to the Assad regime to date was the threat of US airstrike due to its September 21, 2013 chemical weapons use.  However, the Assad regime dodged that threat.  He felt that the Assad regime now has no interest in transitioning itself out of power any time soon

Kerry will have trouble getting the Syrian opposition to come to Geneva II according to the speaker.  The Syrian opposition sees its constituency pounded by Syrian armed forces.  On the battlefield, the speaker observed that the Syrian opposition was losing in real terms.  The speaker doubted the Syrian opposition would come to the talks only to hear a lecture from Assad regime representatives.  The Assad regime has agreed to send a delegation to the talks led by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem.  To remedy this problem, in part, the speaker explained Kerry developed the “London 11.”  The London 11 serves to assure the Syrian opposition that the dialogue between its representatives and the Assad regime’s representatives will be about transition.  The speaker explained that the purpose of Geneva II must be affirmed by both parties.  However, for these reasons, he felt that Geneva II may not happen if the Assad regime does not reaffirm the purpose of the meeting.  The speaker noted that the Syrian opposition would meet in Istanbul to discuss the talks.  Yet, the Syrian National Council, which the speaker called the main political group of the Syrian opposition, said that it will not attend Geneva II and would not come even if a decision is made in Istanbul for all members of the Syrian opposition to attend.  The speaker noted that if the Assad regime shows up without wanting to discuss transition, and if Russia lends its support to the Assad regime’s position, the Geneva talks will fail.  The Syrian opposition will be more frustrated than it is now.  If diplomacy fails, the Assad regime may continue what it is doing with security assistance from Russia and Iran, as long as it is not using chemical weapons.

Using Military Power

What troubled the speaker about all of this was that the Obama administration was mostly concerned with Syria as an arms control problem which was simply a convenient approach to the issue.  The speaker viewed the problem as being much greater.  He did not believe that there could be some nuanced escape for Obama on Syria.  The speaker believed that Obama was caught in Syria just as US President Harry Truman was caught in Korea in 1950.  The speaker stated Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context.  The speaker claimed this has been a fact since the civil war began.  According to the speaker, within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  He explained by pointing to statements often expressed by officials about Assad: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama a made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  The speaker explained that for the White House, it is important for the president to be on the right side of history.  Yet, he notes that there is also a fear to act.  There is concern that any sophisticated aid, in significant amounts, might end up in the wrong hands.

According to the speaker, the fact that the US effort in Syria was not in the hands of the Defense Department is telling.  The speaker claimed that only the Defense Department could handle the large scale delivery of military assistance to Syrian rebels and their training.  He saw the current effort as piecemeal, with only fifteen to twenty rebels being trained at a time.

Further the speaker pointed to the fact that no clear direction exists on Syria.  A national security directive providing clear objectives has not been produced.  The only objective annunciated so far has been to do whatever may support a decision by Assad to leave.  The speaker believed a national security directive would only put the administration on a road toward intervention that it did not want to be on.  As a political matter, the Obama administration recognized that winning Syria is not a goal of the US taxpayer. The US needs to formulate alternative responses in Syria that do not put civilians at risk.  The speaker believed the best bet for the US on Syria would have been a multifaceted strategy.

The Speaker’s Suggestions on the US Policy on Syria

The Speaker offered five ideas on how to approach the Syria issue.  First, he felt Kerry should pursue Geneva II as far as it goes.  Kerry must keep his eye on the purpose of Geneva II which is to launch political transition in Syria and put Assad out of business.  If Geneva II does not work, the process needs to be abandoned.

Second, the speaker suggested de-escalation as a possible partial remedy to Syria.  De-escalation was proposed before the peace process began.  It was among the preconditions Kofi Annan, the initial UN special envoy to the Syrian peace process, required the parties meet on the ground before a negotiation process could begin.  Those precondition also included mutual disengagement (ceasefire); no mass terror; and, news media access.  De-escalation was also mentioned in the communiqué of the London 11.

Third, while the speaker believed a political solution should be sought in Syria which included Assad’s removal from power.  He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Assad to preside in office for reasons that transcend Syria.  Assad managed to dodge his fall when airstrikes were averted by the Russians.  Russians have pushed the view that Assad did not launch chemical attacks, but the Jihadists in the Syrian opposition were responsible.  Once the US military strikes in response to the August 21st chemical attacks did not occur, Assad felt he would never have to leave.  The point Putin is trying to make is that Russia is on the rise again. Russia wants to be seen as supporting a friend to the end.  The world is asked to compare and contrast this approach with that of the US, with particular reference to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.  The Iranians allegedly confided that to the speaker that they believed Assad used chemical weapons. The speaker claimed that he had a positive relationship with Iran due to his two-track work with Iran on other issues.  The Iranians allegedly told the speaker they were especially dismayed by this because of the terrible experience Iran had with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.  Nonetheless, for the Iranians, Syria provides a land bridge from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s missiles are an important part of Iran’s response to Israel, if it acts aggressively toward Iran.

Fourth, the speaker believed military power could have a positive impact in Syria.  Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime believe there is a military solution in Syria.  Assad feels that he can hold out militarily with Russian and Iranian support.  However, the speaker admitted, the US believes that there is no politically acceptable military solution in Syria and that belief would be difficult to overcome.  He believes that military force could be useful to the extent that it could create a new military balance on the ground.  Apparently, some US officials sense it might be too late.

Fifth, the speaker believed that an effort needed to be made to prepare the Syrian opposition to govern in Syria.  The speaker explained that while the Syrian opposition has been recognized, no effort at all has been made to prepare it to govern in Syria. They do not stand as an alternative to the regime.  Until this is done, millions of Syrians will stay with Assad regime.  The speaker revealed that the Syrian opposition as the incoming leaders of the Syrian government in order to support the meeting in Morocco of the then new “Friends of Syria.”  No new attempt to do anything with the Syrian opposition has occurred since.  At the time the speaker made his presentation and for nearly three years, the current government in Damascus led by Assad is fully recognized by the US and the UN.  All power in Syria resides with Assad.

Assessment

Given the speaker’s comments, it seems the US is not fully committed on Syria.  The removal of Assad and his regime have been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it has not been established as part of a national security directive.  The administration’s efforts to date have demonstrated a lack of interest in Syria’s outcome relative to efforts of Russia and Iran.  That lack of interest not only exists in the executive branch, but also in the legislative branch as evinced in the US Congressional debate on military strikes in Syria in early September 2013.

The US has recognized the Assad regime to this date, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.  The Syrian opposition, among many of its problems, was never politically astute, and could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  The Syrian opposition, with all of its infighting and shortcomings, is not prepared to take power in Syria.  No shadow government has been formed.  It takes weeks for the group simply to organize its meetings in Istanbul, to which members often refuse to attend.  The Syrian National Council, itself, has threatened not to come to the nest meeting in Istanbul.

At times, the Syria effort by the US, EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  Assad was forced to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad’s main concern perhaps is no longer US intervention, but the Jihadist’s hold of Syrian territory.  If there is a break down in the Geneva talks, Iranian generals in Syria, led by General (Sharlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, may ramp up their efforts.  With more sophisticated and determined support from Russia, the Assad regime may be able to keep pace with Iranian forces present and change not only the military balance, but the entire situation on the ground.  (The reduction of Jihadist forces in Syria may be an effort to which Western powers may eventually be willing to lend their support.)

Given all that the speaker said, it appears that Obama administration stands willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort.  It is somewhat unlikely the administration would ever broach the use military force in Syria again.  The situation in Syria may very well just be allowed to linger until the end of the Obama administration.  A new US administration may implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.  That might be the only chance for the Syrian opposition would see the robust US support it wants so badly.  With regard to nature taking its course on Assad, it appears that course has not force him out of Damascus, but rathr, has allowed him to remain in power.

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Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above).  He directs Iran’s efforts in Syria from Damascus, coordinating with the heads of the Syrian armed forces, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militia commanders. The failure of the Geneva II talks would present Suleimani with the opportunity to use all the military power available to him to destroy the Free Syrian Army and Jihadist units without the threat of US military intervention.

US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk, and Prolonged “Peaceful Coexistence” with Rogue Islamic Militants

As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.  The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action.  The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted.  Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes.  Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable.  US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  .

However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria.  Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria.  Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally.  Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated.  Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily.  Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent.  While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace.  Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters.  Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants.  Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond.  Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action.  The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.

Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence

As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic.  Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.  He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.”   Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th.  McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces – and I say majority now – are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.”  Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”  Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.  This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 greatcharlie.com post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”) 

Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”  However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.  A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government.  Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.”  Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”

Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence

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 Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war.  Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity.  The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front 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, they are now known best by their rogue acts.   Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start.  There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters.  Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released.  The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels.  This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad.  Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s  transition toward a democratic form of government.  Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway. 

Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces.  The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future.  In the greatcharlie.com post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having 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 Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed 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 were 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.  Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies.  So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory. 

Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria.  Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present.  Pakistani Taliban bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years.  The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces.  In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia.  Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.  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.  Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May.  By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600. 

Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”

As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war.  However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war.  It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians.  Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them.  Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.  Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions.  Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting.  A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions.  If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply.  Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government.  They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria.  This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council.  If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants.  Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants.  However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond.  It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government. 

The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war.  The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia.  This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government.  It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed.  However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so.  They married Bosnian women and became part of the society.  Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present.  The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended.  Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so.  As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon.  Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians. 

If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go.  It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced.  It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers.  Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands.  Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability.  Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states.  They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia!  Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them.  They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.

Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward

In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements, although he did not say how that could be accomplished.  He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”  Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria.  As was also 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 need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening, covertly if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.

If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join.  However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave.  It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government.  The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition.  Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy.  The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts.  Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested.  The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective.  All 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 for strike.  Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.  Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted.  Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed.  Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.

A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians.  If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria.  Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region.  For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria.  For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.

Assessment

Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria.  However, it does not address the issue of their presence.  The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants.  Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate.  Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks.  Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem.  True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority.  Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria.  The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.

Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks.  Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence.  Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage.  Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them.  They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war.  By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

(Over the past three months through blog posts, greatcharlie.com has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria.  Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)

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

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

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

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

Military Options Presented By the Pentagon

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

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

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

The US Military Can Still Act Decisively in Syria

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

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

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

Likely Outcome of Purge

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

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

Assessment

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

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

Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles

An August 15, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, New President’s Cabinet,” reported that after four days of grilling by the conservative dominated Parliament, the proposed cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani survived its confirmation hearings largely intact.  Rouhani’s nominees for the ministries of education, science, and sport were rejected based on accusations by some Members of Parliament that they had been close to the 2009 Green Movement that held protests against Iran’s leaders.  Fifteen other nominees were approved.  According to the New York Times, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammed Javad Zarif as foreign minister suggested that Rouhani was moving forward with his campaign pledge to seek a more constructive dialogue with the US than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Zarif was Iran’s internationally popular, long-time permanent representative to the UN.  He engaged in postgraduate studies at the San Francisco State University and received his doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver and is an expert on the US. 

Yet, the New York Times, August 15th article did not mention that the constructive dialogue will include voices from other appointees such as Ali Akbar Salehi, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, and now the new head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.  An August 15, 2013, Washington Post article reported Salehi had been head of that agency for a year, prior to becoming foreign minister.  He was also Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to that.  An even stronger voice helping to formulate that dialogue will be Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s appointment as defense minister.  According to an August 13, 2013, Washington Times article, Dehghan spent his entire military career in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (“IRGC”).  Until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  That Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  Hardline, and part of the “voice of the Revolution,” Dehghan’s presence will not only impact Iran’s dialogue with the US but also Iran’s approaches to important foreign and defense policy issue such as Syria.  An examination of available options for Dehghan to take as that policy advances indicate President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could be made even stronger and the Syrian opposition forces even less effective in the field, while at the same time countering Western efforts to counter any Iranian moves.

Dehghan: An IRGC “Icon”

Dehghan is no stranger to the type of operations required of Iranians military and security forces in Syria.  What might be telling of Dehghan’s approach may be his experience as an IRGC commander in Lebanon.  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives to engage in martyrdom operations against the Marine barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  (Iranian diplomats and officials would explain that Iran does not engage in assassination or terrorism.  They would call allegations, such as these made of Dehghan and the IRGC, baseless and ridiculous, and part of an effort by detractors to demonize the Islamic republic.)  Experienced, action-oriented, and hardline, (ruthless at times), Dehghan is dedicated to ensuring a strong future for Iran’s military and security forces.  He very likely views Syria as a good opportunity to prepare and test a new generation for the responsibility of protecting Iran’s interests globally.

The Situation in Syria As Dehghan Inherits It

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria group, (organized by former US Secretary of State  in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government), recognized the impact Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters were having on the ground in Syria.  The Friends of Syria 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.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also determined the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  Further, the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  This statement clearly indicates the Friends of Syria, which includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were willing to wage war with Iran by proxy in Syria.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack against Assad’s forces and allies by August!  Considerable activity has been witnessed on the Southern Front, around Damascus, attempting to make gains that should impact diplomatic efforts by the Friends of Syria with Russia, Iran, and Syria.  They have made good use of training in Jordan organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, and have received an intermittent flow of arms and supplies from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Yet, bringing the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, the Free Syrian Army, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations against the Syrian Armed Forces and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies has proved a far more difficult task than ever imagined by the Friends of Syria.  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 July assessment of the situation in Syria completed by NATO, 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 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 to 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.

Approaches Available to Dehghan on Syria

Dehghan was chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council when the decision was made to intervene in Syria with Iranian military and security forces.  Dehghan will unlikely choose to freeze or withdraw in the face of any challenge by the Friends of Syria or as part of some comprehensive deal with the US along with other issues.  In taking steps to counter and defeat Western efforts against the Assad regime and Iranian military and security forces, themselves, Dehghan might choose between two options.

First Option

The first option, as Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University has predicted, would be for Iran to move up the” ladder of escalation.”  That would mean having IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel flood into Syria.  Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could initiate the increase as one of his final acts in office, creating a new era in power projection for Iran.  Elements of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country, along with Iran’s own air defense systems for force protection from any Friends of Syria intervention.  Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy Free Syrian Army units being organized and armed for an attack.  Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel from the US, EU, and Arab states for the Free Syrian Army could face artillery onslaughts.  Attacks in depth with these weapons could have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies as they begin the reduction of Free Syrian Army territory.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide the Iranian and Syrian forces with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by the Free Syrian Army.

The Iranian Navy might move into the Mediterranean Sea using the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria as a port, and provide fire offshore in support of movement by Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah units.  The ships’ air defenses could be integrated with Syria’s air defense system.  (Beyond warfighting, it could engage in joint exercises with the Russian Mediterranean fleet.)  Iran might also deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to enhance military movements and Syrian government’s control of recaptured territory.  Within Iran itself, there may be a modest mobilization of Basij volunteers for service in Syria. 

However, attempting to protect large forces projected a long distance from Iranian territory and resources may prove difficult.  If Iranian forces massed in Syria ever reach the point where they could destroy the Free Syrian Army, Iranian forces would risk being attacked by US, EU, and Arab states, coming to opposition’s rescue.  Iranian forces would likely be cut-off and face the real possibility of defeat resulting from airstrikes and cruise missile strikes.  To cite a few examples of this, in Angola in 1987, South African Army forces projected to Angola, were cut-off and defeated by rebels heavily supported by Cuban, Soviet, East German, and Romanian forces.  In 1982, Argentine forces projected to the Falkland Islands were cut-off and defeated by a highly-capable, sea-based force from Britain, with some US non-combat military support.  In 1991, Iraqi forces sent into nearby Kuwait by Saddam Hussein were cut-off and defeated by a US-led multinational coalition of forces.  Of course, attacking Iranian troops in Syria would also mean the Friends of Syria would be at war with Iran.  Iran has made it clear that in a struggle against the US and EU states, it would not hesitate to attack the interests of those states globally.

Second Option

The second option would have Iran fold all of its forces in Syria into the Syrian Armed Forces.  This act would defeat the claim of an Iranian presence in Syria.  Elements of this approach would include leaving Iranian fighters from the IRGC, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to remain in Syria, calling them volunteers, and placing them outside of the control of the Iranian government.  This was what occurred during the Bosnia War.  A few thousand IRGC troops and Quds Force trainers folded into the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power.  Russia recently took a similar approach when it removed its military personnel from its Tartus naval base in Syria and replaced them with “civilian workers.”  Russia Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdonov, then made the claim that there was “no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry” and the Tartus naval base had no “military or strategic significance.”  The Washington Post has reported Moscow has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian- built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals.

To enhance the combat power of units holding volunteers from Iran, the Iranian military could leave dozens of tanks mechanized vehicles, helicopters, heavy artillery, rockets, logistical vehicles, and communications equipment in Syria.  The Quds Force might remain to train, equip, and fight alongside Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, as part of a covert operation.  Using capabilities provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran would also possess the capability to engage in targeted killings of senior and field grade commanders in the Free Syrian Army.  The goal would be to degrade the effectiveness of the force.

Syrian, Iranian and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate well and cooperate on the battlefield.  At Battle of Qusayr, 6000 Syrian Army infantry troops and supporting armor, initiated the assault by seizing ground, and pushing Free Syrian Army outposts into a killing zone.  Missiles and airstrikes attacked Free Syrian Army shelters at their rear, preventing reinforcements and critical supplies from getting through.  IRGC armored units and other regular units fought alongside the National defense Forces, which included “popular committees” of paramilitaries known as shabiha.  The shabiha were trained by the Iranian Quds Forces.  Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack and took on the mop-up operations in Qusayr while Syrian and Iranian troops move on to take other points in Homs province. 

An Overpowering Look Would Still Be Avoided

Beyond progressively regaining control of strategic towns, Syrian and Iranian forces may continue to avoid engaging in major offensives with attacks across a broad front against the Free Syrian Army held territory in order to present a visibly, “less-dominant” appearance in the conflict.  The full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies have not been brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army.  This may give many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the Free Syrian Army would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, particularly US and EU intervention.  Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syria and its allies, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Additional Iranian Support Possible Under Both Options

Make no mistake, the Russians and Iranians are well-positioned in Syria. Regarding Iran’s efforts, as Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 2013, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.”  At stake also for Iran in Syria is the image it seeks to project as a steadfast ally that will not bend to international pressure.  Early on, the Iranians recognized the opening to secure its interests in Syria while other states talked. They, along with the Russians, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US to do anything too substantial with shipments of high-tech or heavy weapons, even MANPADS, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets—a weapon system always on the Al-Qaida wish-list–to the Free Syrian Army at this point.  This is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. 

Iran could also up the ante by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces with intelligence from espionage, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  It is very likely that at some scale this process is already underway.  According to Geneive Abdo in Foreign Affairs, in the summer of 2011, Iran provided the Assad regime with technology to monitor email, cell phones, and social media.  Iran developed this capability following the 2009 protests and “Green Revolution.”  It invested millions of dollars into creating a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online.  Iran’s monitoring technology is considered among the most sophisticated in the world, second perhaps only to China.  Shortly after Iran shared the surveillance technology with Syria, Assad lifted restrictions on all social networking, most likely to lure dissidents out into the open.

Recent bits of data released by allies of the Assad regime indicate a precise knowledge of most, if not all, aspects of the Free Syrian Army.  The Russian Federal Security Service made it apparent that it had the ability to monitor the activities of 200 Russian and European fighters within the Free Syrian Army in May.  In June, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly updated that figure from the Federal Security Services, stating 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks.  While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Free Syrian Army fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Free Syrian Army fighters.  With continued assistance from Iran, Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, could, themselves, penetrate the Free Syrian Army, having operatives pose as dissenters and deserters who want to join its ranks.  Since the Free Syrian Army has willingly taken on many defectors in company and battalion sized groups without any serious vetting, penetration by Syria’s Mukhabarat may have already occurred.

By moving throughout Syria, particularly Free Syrian Army held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Syrian peoples’ reaction to events.  Moving about in a foreign land, surrounded by the enemy, is dangerous work.  Any fears must be controlled.  Capture by Islamic militant factions could mean torture and summary execution.  Yet, collecting such granular information becomes useful in efforts to shape the battlefield for Syrian and Iranian forces.  Opportunities for doing new things can be discovered.  As discussed in the greatcharlie.com July 13, 2013 post, “President-elect Stirs Optimism in the West, but Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” reports exist alleging that with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the Quds Force, the Assad’s regime has reached an agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).  A rift between that foreign fighter laden, Al-Qaida affiliated faction and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, was exploited.  The Syrians of Al-Nusra have grown angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  The Syrian opposition says evidence of the agreement is that Assad’s forces have concentrated their military operations against secular Free Syrian Army units, and more recently has avoided contact with units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).

Dehghan’s Likely Impact on Rouhani’s Decision Making on Syria

Dehghan is well aware of the advantage Iran has created for Assad by supporting and fighting alongside his forces.  Under either option, Dehghan will continue to enhance the capabilities of Iran’s military and security forces in Syria.  He understands the potential danger that intervention by the Friends of Syria would present to those forces.  However, he has no intention of withdrawing, hesitating, or failing in Syria.  Dehghan likely doubts his potential adversaries would be as committed as Iran to the situation in Syria.

Dehghan, given his previous responsibilities within the Expediency Council, was involved when Iran’s military and security forces entered Syria.  Dehghan will not be willing to surrender the success that those forces have achieved to enable some compromise agreement with the US or anyone else.  He would unlikely advise, support or even entertain any proposal to put before Rouhani to place Iran’s Syria operation on the table for negotiation.  However, in spite of the successes of Assad’s forces with the help of Iran this year, Syria is not yet a complete success.  Assad and his regime’s control over the situation is not secure and sustainable.  The Free Syrian Army still holds territory.  The Friends of Syria, if not completely committed, are still pushing for their desired outcome, Iran’s withdrawal and Assad’s fall.  Dehghan may find that only further advances in Syria can keep his operation from becoming a bargaining chip.  Perhaps Dehghan’s first move, within budgetary constraint, will be to ramp up Iran’s efforts enough to better secure Assad’s position in Syria. That would be his first victory.