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 the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; On Foreign Policy They Want to See Real Success

In his State of the Union Address, US President Barack Obama painted a picture of the US with a better standing in the world after seven years of his leadership. In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Yet, triumphalism does not equate to triumph. There is a continuous threat from terrorist groups. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and China remain in fierce competition with the US. They may seek to establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened.

In a January 12, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears in State of the Union Speech,” it was reported US President Barack Obama painted a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership with a better standing in the world. Concerning foreign policy and national security, Obama defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) describing it as a dangerous threat to the US that must be dealt with but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of US ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Obama highlighted his work in forging a nuclear deal with Iran, opening a new era of relations with Cuba, pressing for a global accord reached in Paris to combat climate change and efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. He also explained the US is uniquely positioned to rally other countries to solve global problems.

In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Loyal Obama supporters and fans and other Democrats will be at every venue, a flutter at every word he utters about his presidency. Doyens of the political realm in the US will make glowing public orations, descants and publish paeans in honor of the president, celebrating his administration’s accomplishments. Having twice vanquished all opposition to Obama in national elections, and after completing nearly eight years of work, some measure of triumphalism is expected to be heard from him, his senior officials, and his staff. It would be expected even more of an administration marked particularly by its obsession over the president’s legacy. The final year of his last term is the ideal time to set the record straight and control the narrative. Iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum. (Pleasant is the memory of past troubles.)

Still, triumphalism, highlighting the administration’s perceived achievements on foreign policy, does not equate to triumph. Real success cannot be determined by levels of applause from fans. Doubts have been expressed even among Democrats over many of the administration’s foreign policy efforts. The forces of tyranny and darkness still hold a prominent place on the international stage. Whether signature efforts by the administration have created real change or will be sustainable remains uncertain. The renowned wit and retired late night US television talk show host, David Letterman, once joked, “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: Operation Hillary’s Problem.”   Whether Letterman engaged in a successful dalliance as a visionary regarding former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s election as the next US president remains to be seen. Still, his main point was clear. The Obama administration has not successfully acted against ISIS and was seemingly passing on that problem, and other important ones, to the next US administration. However, sitting on issues in order to hand them over to a new administration is not a wise choice. In addition to the continuous threat of terrorism from ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other groups worldwide, countries such as Russia, Iran, and China while interacting with the US still remain in fierce competition with it strategically, ideologically. They may now hope to exploit perceived advantages and establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened. Approaches exist to prevent that from occurring or at least minimize any negative results. They may not allow the administration to declare triumph, but may allow it to honestly claim it left a satisfactory foreign policy legacy.

Creating a Foreign Policy Legacy

During Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Presidential Election, he was recognized as a man of vision, a seeker, filled with smart words, no less than the breath of life. His speeches were indeed balanced, teeming with inspiration. In photos, videos and in his writings and speeches during that first presidential campaign and during the initial stages of his first term, it was clear that Obama was very passionate, a man seemingly haunted by his vision of an even brighter future for the US. Yet, having is not the same as wanting. As time passed, there were some successes, but there were also failures. Mistakes were also made, particularly in the area of foreign policy. They came to office believing the policy issues have been misunderstood and solutions are only temporarily hidden. In decision making, spirit and vision would be given primacy over vested interests, realism. That was the case of the US response toward countries in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and to the opposition movements in Ukraine. The administration’s foreign policy seemed driven by a self-neglectful virtue that would allegedly melt all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that the US believes gives hope to those it perceives as helpless. The administration wished to become no less than an anathema to tyrants, pointing always to the hallmark of their oppressive regimes which is a lack of respect for the dignity of others. The administration would contest how those regimes would typically act upon citizens: not with constitutional authority, but with raw power. Yet, the Obama administration also in no way wanted to be associated with the policies of the previous administration of US President George W. Bush which was perceived as willing to lash out without delay at its adversaries. Instead of projecting authentic US strength globally, the administration proffered the idea that the US could rely upon multilateral solutions. That would allow it to minimize US intervention on the ground, but require joint action from allies and partners who were undertaking dramatic military cuts and were facing economic difficulties. Those countries were also very aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric, not set piece engagements to win quickly. No Western European country with real military capabilities would commit requisite or robust forces to take on risks globally, especially if its political leaders felt that the issue at hand did not fall within their interests. Countries possessing far less capabilities than the US in regions where there were urgent and important crises brewing, were also hesitant to act unless matters fell directly in their interests. Obama repeatedly presented his notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama spoke, and regular breakdowns in the administration’s foreign policy initiatives that were being implemented. When the administration thought efforts under this multilateral concept coalesced as an outcome of initial success in Libya, things soured resulting in multiple failures from the controversial loss of US diplomatic and military personnel to the development of struggle between competing factions and Islamic militants aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Obama administration did not invent the US Government. The government that the administration took control of has always been viewed as stable, solid, reassuring. It has been the source of so much hope not only of foreign capitals but individuals worldwide. Now, the image has grown of the US in retreat, perhaps wounded by its ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no longer seen by all as a champion of right but as a cold calculator. Its leaders know the price of everything but not the value of relationships the US once held close. Seeing the failed results of its approach, exasperated European leaders have not responded with mockery, sarcasm, or insolence; at least not publicly. Leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom have tried to give courage, to fortify the administration. Viciousness has done much harm in history. Still, the worst crimes, the worst disasters in history have been the work of the timid, the mediocre. For years, many will feel the Obama administration stood passively in the face of evil.

As an authentic military superpower, the US has a clear upper hand over all of its likely opponents. Any assessment otherwise would not be genuine. The administration has been reluctant to use US military power. Adversaries, upon recognizing this, seemingly downplayed concerns over US capabilities to impose its will and simply considered how to impose their own will, regionally and globally. Soon their narrative exposed a defective perspective that the US lacked the ability to deliver a knockout blow. Subtly, opponents worked tirelessly on the US, enjoying the freedom to act in the world, knowing that beyond the diplomatic table, using economic weapons such as sanctions, and revoking membership in collective economic groups, little else would occur. Possible limitations on what could be done would only be set by the Obama administration’s time in office. It is already clear that the dynamic between the US and many countries has changed. It remains to be seen whether US opponents will attempt to administer some type of coup de grace in the administration’s final months, ensuring that it will not have a positive foreign policy legacy. The following are some possibilities, “stripped to the bone”.

Above is a photo of a deep underground military base in Iran. The Obama administration hopes to be known for attempting to create better relations with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. However, results of its efforts may very well prove that the administration was acting on a charming fantasy. It approached those countries unlike previous administrations. In Tehran, the Obama administration has no friend. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit the administration or betray it.

Iran

Certainly, the Obama administration will be known for attempting to create union with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. Its approach to those countries was unlike that of previous administrations. In past cases, the US projected that strength, and US diplomacy was supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. Indeed, the previous US administration emphasized to Iran that the US had the intention and capability to impose its will on them and it had no ability to impose its will on the US.   Leaders in Tehran rejected that approach. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. To facilitate the establishment of talks with the P5+1 (the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany), the Obama administration did not impose its will on Iran using strength, rather it negotiated with Iran under the fiction that all parties to the talks were equals. US strength was negated. Having managed to arrange the environment to maximize their ability to achieve success, Iranian negotiators came to the talks confident in their positions. The Iranians flatly denied they wanted to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting Iran’s program is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, and the Iranian negotiating team were under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements in Iran, to secure an agreement that recognized Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium and held the line on that issue. As Zarif told the ISNA news agency in November 2014, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’, because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”

Close contact with US negotiators for months allowed the Iranians a real chance to look into their thinking of US negotiators. The Iranians discerned they were witnessing the impact of the Obama administration’s “legacy quest.” White House officials and US political pundits spoke and wrote about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. US negotiators were pushing for a deal in order to claim an historic foreign policy success. So strong was the sense that the US might be willing to make risky concessions, that Zarif stated in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” The Iranians became more tenacious than ever in the talks. There was also a discernible change in Obama’s discussion of taking military action against Iran as the talks progressed. Threats vanished. The administration went as far as to say there was nothing effectively could be done militarily to halt Iran’s program. The narrative of the US changed.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed on July 14, 2015. With safeguards, the administration believes the framework agreement will cut down Iran’s breakout time capacity to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be set up to help discourage Iran from violating the agreement. The hope is noncompliance by Iran at declared or potential undeclared sites would be detected through enhanced monitoring by the international community and promptly disrupted. The consequence of noncompliance would likely be limited to economic sanctions which may not be enough to restrain hardliners driven to build a weapon. The results of the administration’s efforts may prove that it was acting on a charming fantasy.

Reportedly, Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the Iran deal. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea to develop a weapon. Alleged evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

There have been reports that Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the JCPOA. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. (During the Cold War, the US encouraged joint work by its allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and South Africa, on the development of nuclear capabiltites.) The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. On September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft and special operations forces attacked and destroyed them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other facilities exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, one may be underground, west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran. The Obama administration has no friend in the regime in Tehran. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit it or betray it. Equo ne credite! (Do not trust the horse! [Referring to the Trojan Horse.])

European governments and large European firms now seek to renew economic ties and develop business with Iran. As those linkages are established, the chance that the US could pull allies away from potential profits due to a “potential threat” a nuclear Iran might pose is lessened. The argument would be made that economic ties would serve to lessen hostilities between Iran and their countries. Threats to use force against Iran would have little meaning at that point as too many statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made. At best, the Obama administration could increase sanctions on North Korea over nuclear weapons tests showing Pyongyang that it would be impractical to support any possible Iranian covert Iranian overseas nuclear program. It could also make it publicly known that the US is still developing greater capabilities to destroy deep underground military bases as those in Iran. If Iran is trying to cross the line or has crossed the line, at least the next administration would be better able to back diplomacy with force.

ISIS on parade in Mosul. When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began in June 2014, the Obama administration’s response included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama refused to give the Iraqis military aid unless they tried to bridge their divisions. Maliki stepped down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government reflecting Iraq’s ethno-religious diversity and gain the trust of disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it.

Iraq

When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was designed as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. ISIS was able to capture large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces during their offensive because Sunni residents threw their support to it after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had previously helped fight ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama insisted that no US military help would be provided unless Iraqis tried to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to make headway with Maliki. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops prepared the Iraqi Army for its fight to retake Ramadi. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for 2016. Iran would hardly tolerate any loss of control or surrender its interests in Iraq due to the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing the representative government that the US sought for Iraq could not be easily created, Iran’s leaders likely assumed the US would not succeed. Tehran went ahead and expressed reserved support for Abadi. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. Causality for his change in perspective was likely a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, and Iran’s battlefield efforts. Abadi may have also questioned the Obama administration’s will to engage in long-term fight with ISIS. His rebellious attitude was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Iran has heavily committed itself to Iraq.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran has placed itself in a better position to shape Iraq politically and economically. How Iran would ameliorate Iraq’s sectarian struggle is uncertain.

To support Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. While the US was hesitant to help Iraqi Security Forces as ISIS marched toward Baghdad, Abadi observed that Iran was swift to provide assistance. Having established greater control over the Shi’a community and increased its influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran is now in a better position to shape Iraq politically, economically, and perhaps socially, with effort.

The road Iran is creating for Abadi may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representative government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern it, the Obama administration should consider how it can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. That does not mean pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish things. Baghdad should have positive ties with its neighbor, Iran. Yet, the US can improve its relationship with Iraq. Surely, it could further enable Iraq’s fight against ISIS, and help stem the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Even more, it could further advance Iraq’s position on the world stage by helping it generate significant business and economic ties worldwide, beyond the oil and gas industry, even while Baghdad copes with ISIS and sectarian issues. Clarior e tenebris! ([I shine] out of the darkness more brightly!)

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with 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. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Now with Russia in the mix, they are well out of their depth. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy against Assad’s regime.

Syria

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with 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. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Rebel fighters found themselves in trouble early on and now with Russia in the mix, they recognize that they are well out of their depth. Just keeping the Opposition together politically has been difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down via negotiations. Obama expressed that view on CBS NEWS “60 Minutes”, saying: “. . . I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate Opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL [ISIS]? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL [ISIS]? He went on to state: “. . . There is no doubt it did not work.” A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been created by the Opposition at the civil war’s start and cannot be created by it now. The Opposition could fight on against the Assad regime minus support, but it would lose, especially with ISIS present. Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare. (Anyone can err, but only a fool persists in his fault.)

ISIS and Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria have reached a considerable size and strength. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those of the Opposition. While mainstream Opposition forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic State on Syrian territory. At one point, the Obama administration seemed willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers, and allowing Assad to remain in power. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. It could have been surmised that the Assad regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, would not survive in the long-run. It seems the Obama administration assumed Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran would grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancing their cause. US military action in Syria has been limited to airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That tack left the door open for others to operate freely in Syria to impose their will. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and has fought alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Moreover, Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate and cooperate well on the battlefield. Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack on Qusayr and took on the mop-up operations there. Syrian and Iranian troops took on rebels in Homs and other points in Homs province. Russia more recently intervened militarily in Syria, it has targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Since October 2015, command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck, limiting ISIS’ ability to direct its fighters. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS in front of Russian allies have been degraded with close air support and heavy strikes by Russia. Presumably they will provide close air support for an offensive by their allies.

US military action in Syria has primarily been airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That has left the door open for other countries to impose their will on the ground. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces, and fight alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” In Syria, Russia has targeted ISIS’ command, control, and communications centers. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, the US might need to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran.

New talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might get their act together for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to keep Assad in power. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, despite UN Talks, the US may be given little choice but to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable, secure peace in their country would be the best outcome.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements heard from the Obama administration on why US military power should be withheld have been made to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders.

Russia

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin wants to change the narrative which has Russia coming in a distant second to the US. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin and his closest advisers share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Little was done to build a relationship with Putin who was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister and was the real power in Moscow. Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012. Based on positive signals from Medvedev on nuclear arms reductions, administration officials got the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. When Putin expressed disinterest, administration officials insisted that he agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.   Apparently retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. Relations were so bad in 2013 that Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.” He further stated, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”

There was no easy way to repair the relationship. In our media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any political leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel is only signaling insecurity. This was the case at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013. When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.” By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US and EU worsened. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace, Russian warships in NATO waters, and Russian claims made on the Arctic. Putin had already shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics. Examples include his actions in Georgia and Ukraine and his proposal for a “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. By taking action in Syria, Putin showed he is also ready to secure Russia’s interests abroad.

The leaders of Germany (despite some controversial energy sector matters) and the United Kingdom are not fans of Putin and have encouraged Obama to stand firm in his dealings with him. Yet, some other European allies fear facing greater problems from Putin. Coping with his abrasive side can be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could try to do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements have been made by the Obama administration, on why US military power should be withheld, to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. The administration will have diplomatic contact and telephone communications with Putin, but keeping a brave face on while coping with his aggressive side will be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations such as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama. The more meetings the two can have in 2016, the better. That would be to the benefit of the people of both countries long-term. Gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo]. A water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often].

The Way Forward

Graviore manent. (Heavier things remain.) Panegyrics for Obama and his administration have already begun to make their way into the media. Still, the specter remains of unresolved policy issues with the potential to worsen and become far more intractable. Arguments can be made that an environment in which such problems could grow was allowed to exist due to the delinquency of the administration. The result of such perceived inadequacies and failures could possibly be passed on to the next administration. A decision to simply sit on problems or contain them would be wrong and likely viewed as a pitfall of fear and resignation. There are approaches the Obama administration could take to defeat or defuse problems it may face from its adversaries. A few were presented here more boiled to the marrow than stripped to the bone as originally promised.

Candidates for the presidency have expressed concern over the same issues in campaign speeches and during debates. Perhaps those who can do better will take office and actually do better during their time in office. It is impossible for deeds to be undone. The Obama administration has done what it wanted to do on foreign policy. When God gives his grace to us, he gives us what we do not deserve. When God gives his mercy to us, he does not give us what we deserve. The Obama administration may very well be able to ride out its final year reflecting publicly on things that are pleasing to remember. However, it is always best to act than react. Setting an agenda for action would be the best action to take.

After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks: Can Russia Shape Those Talks on the Ground?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin remains confident about Russia’s intervention in Syria. He has outlined Russia’s objectives there and is providing the Russian Federation Armed Forces what they need to achieve them. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 calls for talks, but leaves the matter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency open and allows for continued action against ISIS and other Islamic militants. That leaves Putin able to use the forces of Russia and its allies in Syria to help Assad remain in power.

According to a December 18, 2015 New York Times article entitled “After Five Years of War in Syria, UN Passes Resolution on Talks,” the UN Security Council, by a vote of 15-0, adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the Syrian civil war. It was reportedly the result of a long term effort of the US and Russia to find common interests to stop the violence in the war-torn country. However, although a plan was agreed upon unanimously on December 18th, sharp differences remain between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. For the US, removing Assad from power in Damascus is a requirement. The resolution makes no mention of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. In truth, what the plan will mean on the ground is uncertain. As US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with humility on December 18th at the UN Security Council, “No one is sitting here today suggesting to anybody that the road ahead is a gilded path. It is complicated. It will remain complicated. But this at least demands that the parties come to the table.”

UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially calls for the following: a ceasefire must be established and formal talks on a political transition must start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Jabhat al-Nusra, are excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, can continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under US supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led. As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to November 18th Syria meeting was essential, but hardly prosaic given its ties to Syria. As a matter of fact, Russia has a congenial relationship with the Assad regime unlike other Permanent Five Members. Russia has been working closely with Iran to provide the Syrian Government with military support. Indeed, Putin went into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. While the administration of US President Barack Obama has been engaged in a desultory effort to remove Assad since 2012, Putin recognized the US would keep working against Assad regime until it fell or ISIS, too strong for the Syrian Opposition to contend with, took control in Syria. Putin has not forgotten the results of the Obama administration’s support of rebels in opposition to Libyan President Muammar el-Gaddafi, a friend of Moscow. Multinational forces under NATO command, mandated to impose a no-fly zone under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, exceeded their mission, destroying pro-Gaddafi forces as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell; he was killed. To Putin, it was a cunning deceit and dark tragedy. He does not want anything similar to occur in Syria.

Long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might establish among themselves common facts, presuppositions, and policies for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to lengthen Assad’s tenure as president. Russia, is a very capable military superpower. Indeed, Russia could shape the situation on the ground by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Deliberate progress is being made toward that goal. A large military offensive, purportedly being organized, may allow Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces to regain control of a large portion of Syrian territory. The Syrian Government might work to “ensure” the political perspectives of local political leaders, administrators, and the civilian population, in reclaimed territory were supportive of Assad. Diplomatic efforts at the UN Talks by Russia and Iran would be conducted in conjunction with the military activity. Perhaps UN Security Council vote, rather than create an agreement for Assad’s removal and transition to a government favorable to the US, EU and some Arab States, may have instead convinced Russia and Iran that shaping events on the ground militarily in Syria is the best way to secure their interests. Principiis obsta (et respice finem). Resist the beginnings (and consider the end). Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched the international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and the possibility for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. He will not become subsumed by Syria. If Russia were to act with more force and increase the pace of its operations in Syria, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would become a decisive factor in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks.

Russia on the Ground in Syria

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, wrote in De Vita Caesarum that Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Augustus Caesar) abhorred haste and rashness in a military commander.  He preferred that actions be taken with an appropriate balance of urgency and diligence. Rushing through to execute tasks often led to mistakes and sustained results are not achieved. Accordingly, one of his favorite sayings was festina lente (hasten slowly). Many in the West complained from the start of operations by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria that they were ill-fated, immediately bogged down, or inappropriately conducted. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated 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.” At a December 18, 2015 news conference, Kerry stated in an effusion of sentiment that 80 percent of Russian airstrikes were hitting Syrian Opposition groups fighting Assad’s forces and not hitting ISIS forces. Putin’s decision to go into Syria was not made overnight. Since 2012, he has watched international community fumble and Syria crumble. He has long considered Russia’s military capabilities and possibilities for their successful use in Syria. He knows what he wants to do and how to do it. Putin in no way wants support Syrian Opposition forces in their effort against Assad so it would make sense for Putin to pace Russia’s actions against ISIS, to learn the landscape and ensure the Syrian Opposition gained no advantages. To that extent, it should have been expected that he would not hesitate to disrupt the Syrian Opposition’s activities where he could. Regarding costs for the Syria operation, so far, Putin has well-managed them. Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Center for Analyses of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, explained: “All available data show us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget.” Senior administration and intelligence officials in the US, in anonymity, agree with that assessment.

Once in Syria, Russia began using many of its latest weapons systems. New systems used have included: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 900 miles away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Reuters quoted Putin as saying: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” However, Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Putin seemed to imply that Russia may ramp up the size and speed of its operations in Syria. By acting more robustly and increasing the tempo of its operations, the Russian Federation Armed Forces would certainly be the decisive factor on the ground in Syria and, correlatively, in the UN Talks. Both the ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught organized by Russia and its allies. Seizing the maximum amount of land possible may very well enable the Syrian Government to influence the political landscape thus furthering Putin’s goal of keeping Assad in power. Heartened by the Syrian Armed Forces ability to fight back, some Syrians living in towns and cities reclaimed by their government might find cause to support Assad, lessening the possibility of his removal a bit more. Protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem. (Protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection.)  A Russian Federation Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H Bomber (above) fires a KH-101 air launched cruise missile at a target in Ildib, Syria. By supporting the Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria, Russia might shape the situation on the ground there. If a massive offensive is eventually conducted by Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, in territory taken, the Assad regime may try to “ensure” local political leaders and administrators, and local residents were supportive of Assad.

The Importance of Russian-Iranian Cooperation

Per sequar! (Do your part, I will do mine!) Concerning its diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Russian-Iranian military cooperation was decided upon much earlier. An agreement for a joint Russian-Iranian military effort in Syria came into effect in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria to include: IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Hamadani; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hadi Kajbaf; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Reza Khavari; IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Mohammad Ali Allahdadi; Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Hamid Mokhtarband; and, IRGC-Quds Force Colonel (Sarhang-e Yekom) Farshad Hasounizadeh.

On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani then took control of the Syria operation, flying often into Damascus. Once the decision on the joint Russian-Iranian effort was made, Suleimani visited Putin and Shoigu in Moscow in July 2015. He outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces, but also explained time remained to reclaim the initiative. Putin decided that it was time to act. Suleimani took on a central role in the coordination of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian activities on the ground. Reportedly, Suleimani was injured by a TOW missile fired by Syrian Opposition rebels on November 12, 2015. In diplomacy on Syria, Iran has decided to step up its coordination with Russia. The decision was made after a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on November 23, 2015 pictured above. Russia and Iran will pursue a singular policy designed to benefit Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

Military Action

According to Russian defense and military officials, Russia’s airstrikes have targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck throwing the process of directing ISIS units into confusion. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS positions in front of the Russian allies have been degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. Presumably they will provide close air support for an eventual ground offensive by Russia and its allies. (Ground forces utilized would primarily be Syrian and Iranian though.) Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets have conducted almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. Russia has also conducted night strikes with damage assessment by drones.

Reportedly, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces believe the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. It would take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Allawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet then Russian Federation Navy port that is important to naval operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies might turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could push farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies may press eastward. A key objective would be to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Another key objective would be to push beyond Aleppo to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, which is the official capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Moving that far out, some believe Russia may seek to co-opt the Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) to help assist in the offensive. Russia has begun to increase the intensity of its attacks in all of the locations mentioned. Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers have primarily been used on command posts, stores of weapons, oil products, and workshops where weapons for suicide bombers are made that are situated along prospective axes of advance of Russia and its allies. Bunker busting BETAB-500 bombs have been dropped from Su-34s near Raqqa with the goal of eliminating command posts along with underground storage facilities for explosives and munitions. Large numbers of ISIS fighters have been eliminated due to such strikes. The above map from the renowned Institute for the Study of War reveals the general pattern of Russian airstrikes and cruise missile strikes in Syria. Both ISIS and the Syrian Opposition would find it difficult to hold territory in the face of a superpower-sized onslaught by Russia and its allies. Putin likely wants pro-Assad forces to take the maximum amount of land possible west and north in “Useful Syria” and eastward in Raqqa and Palmyra, to broaden the Assad regime’s area of control and political influence.

To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s were first delivered to the Syrian Republican Guards 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s younger brother, General Ali Maher Assad. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are mostly Russian T-72s which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters. The pace of the deliveries will be determined by the time needed for Russian instructors to train Syrian tank crews on the T-90. Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems have also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment includes: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Russia and its allies have placed a steady onslaught of fire from those systems and from tanks on their opponents’ positions daily. If a major ground offensive gets underway, artillery attacks will surely intensify. Quae non prosunt singular multa iuvant. (What alone is not useful helps when accumulated.) To enhance mobility and firepower for offensive action, Russia has transferred dozens of powerful, well-armored, T-90 tanks to the Syrian Army, particularly those fighting in Aleppo and near Damascus. The T-90s will also be used to enhance the combat power of the combined Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces poised to take Palmyra from ISIS. The T-90s will replace a large portion of the Syrian Army’s 500 tanks which are vulnerable to TOW missile systems provided by the US to Syrian Opposition fighters.

A Future Syrian-Iranian Fretwork

With the intermeshing of Iranian forces with the Syrian Armed Forces and the National Defense Front, a picture emerges of what Syrian Armed Forces and what Syrian communities along the axis of the Iranian-Syrian ground attack might look like in a year. One might recall what occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina once the war ended in 1995. Particularly after 1994, members of the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, Iranian Army and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, referred to as “volunteers,” were folded into the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, a few thousand Iranians became part of the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power. The Iranian troops settled in many towns and cities in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The extraction of foreign fighters from the postwar Bosnian Federation Armija, and the Federation in general, was mandated by the national government in Sarajevo about a decade after the war due to international pressure. In Syria, the IRGC, IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security will 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.

The Assad regime likely has a limited degree of influence within the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win. Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. They likely believe that they can cope with that issue in the coming UN Talks. If Assad’s presidency is not viewed as legitimate by the international community following an election, due to any administrative difficulties that may arise or due to actions by the Assad regime or its allies on the ground, the impact on Assad would be minimal. By now, Assad has become inured to the hardship caused by UN sanctions and isolation stemming from the international community’s scorn. Moreover, Assad is, albeit, the “ward” of Russia and Iran. If problems arise, they will cover him. If Russia and its allies can gain control of a good portion of Syria, future threats of an externally orchestrated regime change by force will be precluded. Amicus certus in re incerta. (A sure friend in an unsure matter.) Expectations for talks established under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 may not be based in reality. The picture painted at the UN Security Council was of a factionalized, difficult Syrian Opposition that has suddenly become homogenized. Putin anticipates nothing satisfying from the UN Talks. He sees there is a danger that Russia’s interests will not be served. Rather than wait to be disappointed, Putin will likely seize the opportunity to shape the situation Syria to meet Russia’s interests and those of Tehran and Damascus.

The Way Forward

Fantasies of a future that is desired can become a substitute for reality. Somehow, those on the UN Security Council have anesthetized their consciences to the realities, difficulties, of working with the Syrian Opposition Movement. Indeed, things antecedent have been forgotten. The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with 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, very rapidly, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered the entire taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies 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 Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. Now, new talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The UN Security Council now paints a picture of a Syrian Opposition that has become homogenized and is ready for talks. One should anticipate a future that is reality based. Perhaps what the UN Security Council is waiting for regarding the talks will not be worth waiting for. Sero venientibus ossa! (Those who are late get the bones!)

The art that moves Putin’s mind is not easily deciphered. His intuition likely tells him there will be plenty of debate and confusion at the UN Talks. Yet, he is likely more concerned that the process will not serve Russia’s interests. Putin will not standby for that and will try in advance of UN monitored elections to shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests and those of Iran and the Assad regime. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, offensive and defensive actions by the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition and Russia can continue. For Putin, that means Russia and its allies will be able to act “unimpeded” on the ground. Russia’s moves in Syria will not bar it from working on the talks alongside the other Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council. Rather, Russia will be involved fully. With matters such as Libya in mind, its’ diplomats will narrowly focus on what best suits Russia and its allies. If Putin gets his way, there will be little left in Syria for the US to be satisfied with. The drama of the Obama administration’s failed interaction with Putin is nearly played out as the end of its second term nears. Kremlin observers allege Putin feels the administration has been marked by weakness. He will try to take advantage of the situation while it lasts.

Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin 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 Syria 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.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   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 would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 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 FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched

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

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

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed

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

Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS

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

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

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

ISIS Emerges

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

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

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

Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

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.